May 13, 2023

Chief Robert Contee discusses challenges he overcame to become chief of the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department


PERF members,

Chief Robert Contee has had an impressive career. Born in Washington, DC, he joined his hometown Metropolitan Police Department as a cadet at age 17. As he rose through the ranks, Chief Contee led three of the department’s eight districts, as well as the special operations division and the homicide division. He became acting chief on January 2, 2021, four days before the attack on the U.S. Capitol, and was confirmed as the permanent chief in May 2021. Next month he will retire from the department to join the FBI as the assistant director of the Office of Partner Engagement.

Chief Contee and Executive Assistant Chief Ashan Benedict. Credit: UK Home Office

Chief Contee spoke to me earlier this week about his childhood, his early experiences with the department, the roles that prepared him to be chief, and the January 6th attack.

Chuck Wexler: You grew up in the Carver Terrace area in Washington, DC. What were your early years like? And did you always want to be a cop?

Chief Robert Contee: It was a little difficult, to be perfectly honest with you. I grew up in a two-parent household, but my parents were young. My father was 17 when I was born, and he was addicted to drugs from before I was born until about 12 years ago. And both my parents have cerebral palsy. So I grew up in a situation with a set of challenges.

And you add all the neighborhood stuff. It was called Carver Terrace, but we called it “Little Vietnam” because of all the shootings and killings. So it was not a cakewalk by any stretch of the imagination.

But I had a tough mom. She’s 4’11” and tough as nails. She used to tell me she’d stand up on a chair to kick my behind. That’s how she was then and how she is to this day.

I didn’t come out of the gate wanting to be a police officer or anything like that. I had a lot of support. I had teachers who really supported me. I still keep in touch with some of them. It’s really a village, if you will, that raised Robert Contee.

When I got to about 16 or 17 years old, my parents started asking me, “What’s next?” “Are you going to college?” “What are you doing?” So I went on a police ride-along.

Wexler: How did you end up going on a ride-along?

Chief Contee: In our high school, if you had enough credits by your senior year, you could go to school for half the day and to the police academy for the other half the day, and you get paid to do it. I was a kid living in poverty with a drug-addicted parent, so I thought I needed to find a way out. When the cadet program opportunity was presented, I wanted to see what it was like. I was in 11th grade at the time, and I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

Wexler: What was that ride-along like? How did it draw you into policing?

Chief Contee: I rode with a Black guy named James Carter. He did everything you would expect a police officer to do when engaging with the community. One minute he’d be locking up bad guys and the next minute he’d be engaging people on the street. I just felt like this was the coolest thing.

Then I went on another ride-along, which was a different experience, with a female officer named Donna Wilson. Donna worked on the evening shift over in the Fifth District. I saw how other officers were very protective of all the female officers, and they seemed to me like a family. They go out to all these different assignments, but they’re like a family.

As a kid growing up in Northeast DC, you see one side of the police. They went into my neighborhood, busted in the door of the apartment next to where I lived, and locked up the drug dealers. But I kind of had an opportunity to peek behind the curtain. It was life-changing for me, and my sister followed in my footsteps. She became a police cadet and has been with our department for 20 years.

Wexler: What was your parents’ reaction when you told them you wanted to be a cop?

Chief Contee: My father, while he was dealing with his challenges, was very supportive. My mother was also supportive, but it was a nervous supportive. My mom saw all the bad things that happened in the neighborhood, and she said, “I support you and all, but are you sure you want to do this?” So at the end of the day, she was very supportive.

And when I got to the 12th grade, I was a police cadet going to the academy half a day. And I had to wear a police uniform with a cadet patch as I walked to school and around school.

Wexler: So you really saw two different sides of the world at 17.

Chief Contee: Yes, and to add to the complexity, not only did my father use drugs, but he also sold drugs at a point. There was some interaction with every drug you can think of at some point. I knew what the smell of PCP was as a young kid, because I remember seeing it in the mayonnaise jar in the freezer because my father was selling it. So I got to become the police, but I had a dad at home with these issues. It was not the most ideal circumstance, but it certainly gave me a perspective on both sides of the fence.

And one of the reasons why I wanted to get into the cadet program was because I’d be able to get my own place after I graduated from high school and became a full-time employee of the police department. I wouldn’t have to live in a place where my father was using or selling drugs. So it was a pathway out of some of the circumstances in which I found myself.

And people also looked out for me during my time at the police academy and in my first assignment. I was assigned to the police motor pool, working for the chief of police. And I was a kid from Carver Terrace driving around the Washington, DC police chief’s car. How cool is that? I had always seen the chief of police on TV, and now I was in his car. I remember one time I was leaving the car wash in his car, and they had a cellphone installed in the car. I called my mother and said, “You’re not going to believe this, but I’m calling from the chief of police’s car.” She couldn’t believe it and thought it was awesome.

I had a lot of opportunities afforded to me at an early age and through my time with the police department.

Wexler: Tell me what it was like when you first joined the department and there were Washington Post exposés being written about the agency. Do you remember that period?

Chief Contee: I remember that period very well. It was a very rough time for all of us. In 1994 I almost left the department to go to a federal agency or one of the surrounding jurisdictions, just because our agency’s reputation was kind of tanking. We didn’t have the greatest reputation, and some of the police cadets were a reason why. We had a group called the “dirty dozen” who were arrested. They grew up in challenging situations in the city, just like me, and I didn’t want to be associated with that kind of stuff. It was a very, very difficult time for me personally.

Wexler: What was it like when Chuck Ramsey was hired to lead the department in 1998?

Chief Contee: We didn’t know what to expect from him, but very early on I started to see that he presented hope, professionalism, and opportunity. He was willing to take risks with some of the people he moved around the department. It wasn’t just, “Oh, this person has 20 years on the job and that’s why I moved him.” He was taking chances and putting people in strategic places in the department.

Right at that time, I was promoted to sergeant. He restructured the districts into “police service areas,” and I was given PSA 206. Under his model, it was like being chief of your own little agency. These officers work for you, and it was an exciting opportunity to learn.

I really bought in [to Chief Ramsey’s changes] and was interested in being promoted. Chuck Ramsey encouraged young guys like me with new opportunities.

Wexler: Can you tell us about your interaction with Chuck Ramsey when he assigned you to the homicide division?

Chief Contee: That was in 2004, and I was being promoted to captain. I had been a lieutenant in the intelligence branch. Normally when you’re promoted to captain, you first go to a district and serve as a watch commander. There were five of us being promoted, and I was told I was going to homicide. I asked why, because I didn’t have experience investigating homicides. Chief Ramsey told me that he was not sending me there to investigate homicides; he was sending me there to make sure the people are taken care of and have the tools they need to do their jobs. They are the homicide detectives.

Those detectives were all Type-A personalities and the best in the business. I was 31 years old at the time. I walked in the door knowing I was going to be seen as a new unknown. There was so much going on – we had just had the Chandra Levy case – and it was a boost of confidence for the chief of police to trust me, at 31 years old, to be the head of the homicide division in our nation’s capital.

I could tell you 100 different stories about how he invested in me. At the time, I didn’t have my college degree. But he saw promise in me, and he told me I needed to go to school and get my degree. I went to George Washington University while I was head of the homicide division.

Wexler: You were put in charge of the special operations division, with duties that include escorting the President of the United States. What was that experience like?

Chief Contee: We escort the President of the United States every day that he moves throughout Washington, whether he’s going to Air Force One or going to get a cheeseburger. We’re also moving the Vice President every day – taking her to work, taking her home, and taking her wherever she needs to go. And we escort all the heads of state who come to Washington, DC regularly. It’s a prestigious position within our agency.

Again, that was Chief Ramsey looking out for me. He told me that if I got experience in patrol, investigations, and special operations, I could go be the chief of police anywhere in the country. For all law enforcement agencies, the margin for error with all aspects of special operations – SWAT teams, bomb tech – is really, really thin. You can’t be asleep at the wheel when you’re moving the President and Vice President. So I was honored to hold that position, and I know it helped me on January 6th.

Wexler: I want to get to January 6th, but first let’s talk about SMIP. You were part of an impressive SMIP class.

Chief Contee: Yes, we had some incredible chiefs who were not yet chiefs at the time. We had [former Dallas Chief and Chicago Superintendent] David Brown, [current LAPD Chief] Mike Moore, [former LAPD Chief] Charlie Beck, and [former ATF Director] Tom Brandon.

Chief Ramsey told me SMIP is the “chief-maker.” He said it would give me the on-the-ground, nitty-gritty information I’d need to be successful as a chief. And whether it was negotiations, or public information, or thinking critically in case studies, the course had all the things I didn’t know I was going to need.

When I came back, I was promoted to commander of the Second District, and the timing was perfect.

Wexler: So you were sworn in on January 2, 2021, and four days later the attack on the U.S. Capitol occurred. You knew then-U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steve Sund from his time with MPD. Did he call you that day to notify you about what was occurring?

Chief Contee: He called me several days before January 6th. He was very concerned about what we might see once people actually showed up. He asked if I’d be able to send some resources their way if they were in need of resources. We positioned several platoons very near the Capitol. Those folks deployed early on January 6th when that need became evident, because the Capitol Police were just overwhelmed. We arrived, and it wasn’t long before we were both overwhelmed by what was going on.

Part of [Chief Sund’s] reason for asking for that help was the pushback he was receiving regarding the deployment of the National Guard. I had heard a lot of the same pushback about not having the National Guard present because of the optics. They don’t want boots on the ground at the Capitol.

I did all I could to position those resources. I also reached out to chiefs of police in surrounding jurisdictions who I had relationships with, and they responded.

Wexler: And your officers were overwhelmed for hours.

Chief Contee: I think most cops have gotten into a scrap with somebody at some point in their professional career in law enforcement. But that might last minutes, and you have assistance from other police officers. I’ve never been in, and before January 6th, my cops had never been in a fight that lasts for hours. Their body-worn camera footage shows them in a fight for hours.

Wexler: What was the best part of being the police chief of Washington, DC?

Chief Contee: The people. We have some amazing people at the Metropolitan Police Department and in the community. As I prepare to transition out of this role, I’ve received an outpouring of love and support from our members. I still haven’t responded to all the emails I’ve received from members of the agency who reached out.

Some of the things I hear them saying echo how I felt about Chief Ramsey – professionalism, hope, and optimism. So I’m now in a different seat, able to create opportunities for other members of our agency.

Wexler: What has been the most challenging part of being the police chief in Washington, DC?

Chief Contee: Navigating the space between politics, the community, and unions. It’s difficult to thread that needle in interacting with the community without alienating the cops or the community. Then you also have to manage relationships with the politicians. I’d say that was probably the most challenging part.

Wexler: Is there any funny story you’ll remember?

Chief Contee: DC is home to go-go music. I’m born and raised in this city, and there’s just something about go-go music. It’s just a vibe that you feel. I was at a community event, and we had a police band up on the stage playing go-go music. Somehow a tambourine ended up in my hand, and I was playing along. A video of me playing this tambourine went viral. Some people loved it, and it made a couple news stations. Some people said, “He needs to be out there fighting crime,” or “That’s not professional.”

But I thought it was funny as hell. I had family members and others reaching out from all over the country telling me they saw my video.

Wexler: And tell us what you’re looking forward to in your new position with the FBI.

Chief Contee: I thought long and hard before I accepted this position, and it really boiled down to the mission. I still get to contribute to the mission of local law enforcement from a different platform.

Thanks to Chief Contee for taking the time to speak with me. He’s had an impressive career, and I’m sure you’ll all be hearing from him in his new position with the FBI.