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November 17, 2023

Inside the FBI: The Importance of Partner Engagement

On this episode of Inside the FBI, we'll hear from Robert J. Contee III, assistant director of the FBI's Office of Partner Engagement


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[The episode opens with a musical track that starts with a maraca-like shaking noise and then features what sound like synthesizers and electric guitar.]

Perry Adams: Partnerships form the backbone of effective law enforcement. And to fulfill our mission, the FBI works with and supports our partners at every level of government on a daily basis.

Robert J. Contee III: The Bureau has an incredible amount of resources and tools available to it, and we want to share those tools and resources with law enforcement agencies that we partner with around the globe.

Adams: That was Robert J. Contee III, the head of the Office of Partner Engagement at FBI Headquarters. FBI Director Christopher Wray appointed the former D.C. police chief in April 2023, and he officially joined the Bureau this July.

In his role, Contee builds relationships between the FBI and federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Adams: On this episode of Inside the FBI, we’ll hear directly from Contee about his career in law enforcement, his approach to building good working relationships, and why law enforcement partnerships are vital to our communities.

I’m Perry Adams, and this is Inside the FBI.

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Adams: Director Wray often emphasizes the importance of partnerships among law enforcement agencies, as he did during a recent keynote address to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, or IACP, where he said this:

Wray: The reason our relationships are so strong—both between IACP and the FBI and among the agencies we represent—is because we share the same values and commitment to working tirelessly and selflessly to protect our fellow citizens.

Adams: Assistant Director Robert Contee also attended the IACP conference this year. As the new leader of the FBI’s Office of Partner Engagement—or OPE—he regularly meets with law enforcement partners at all levels to discuss priority issues, best practices, and opportunities to support and learn from one another.

Here’s Contee again:

Contee: Through my lens coming from the local law enforcement side of things, I see myself sort of as the interpreter for the Bureau, for local law enforcement. You know, the Bureau, for a long time now, focused on the issues that are important to American people, whether it's terrorism, violent crime, all those things.

And law enforcement agencies around the country, depending on their communities, they have different ways to combat that. And they're not all the same, right? The issues that are important to a small-town sheriff or a big-city police department, you know, those issues could be very different.

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We're able to really kind of unpack what those needs are and then convey those needs to the leadership of the FBI so that the FBI can better assist and address the needs and concerns of the communities.

Adams: Contee stresses that to achieve that goal, the FBI never takes a cookie cutter approach to partnership.

Contee: As we focus in on what it takes, we understand that different agencies need different things from the Bureau. So it's really kind of making sure that we are able to customize what we do.

If we're dealing with a small agency that needs A, B, and C from the Bureau, we want to be able to provide A, B, and C to that particular agency. If we're dealing with a larger agency who only needs D and E from us, we want to make sure that we're providing D and E.

It's really being more in tune with the needs of the people in law enforcement agencies all across the country and really attending to their needs. In doing that, we're also making sure that American cities all across our country are safe because the Bureau is involved with those agencies.

Adams: OPE also focuses on building partnerships with the 80 fusion centers across the United States that facilitate information sharing between federal agencies and state, local, and tribal law enforcement.

Contee: Certainly, as you can imagine, there are threats that are happening in communities all across our country every single day. And the relationship with those fusion centers are really, really, really important because all fusion centers are not necessarily created equal, but they really depend on having that connection to the FBI to be successful again as they work to protect communities all across our country.

Adams: OPE helps build many of those connections through training initiatives. In addition to intelligence training for law enforcement professionals, they offer active shooter response training to sworn law enforcement through a program called Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training—or ALERRT—held in conjunction with Texas State University.

They also offer active shooter training for civilians through their Active Shooter Attack Prevention and Preparedness program, or ASAPP.

Here's Contee:

Contee: They go around the country demonstrating best practices in the space of active shooter training, which I think is really, really, really important in light of some of the mass shootings that we've seen in communities that have been devastated. Having to be part of that and part of the training that goes along with that for law enforcement officers, this is the FBI's brand in terms of how you respond to that.

I think that that is an awesome task and responsibility, and the fact that we get to train thousands of people all across our country in this space, you cannot quantify how many lives might be saved as a result of the training that they do. So, it’s something that we take very seriously.

We partner in that space. We bring in other law enforcement personnel from other agencies, in fact, who come to us sort of on loan that also go out, and they're part of that training team. So, it's really a great collaboration to help save lives all across our country as far as I'm concerned.

Adams: For Contee, the key to being the best partner starts with focusing on the people involved.

Contee: My team has heard me oftentimes say you cannot have strong partnership unless you have a strong relationship first.

So, one of the things that we work on doing is really working on the relationship aspect because I don't want the first time that the Bureau has to interact with some law enforcement agency head or executive is when something bad has happened, and now we're trying to form a relationship in the middle of crisis or chaos, trying to forge a relationship for some outcome. But if you have those relationships built before you find yourself where you have to work through whatever the thing might be, I think you will see better outcomes in that space.

My goal is to bring out the best in everybody that's part of our team as we look to how we serve others within the law enforcement community nationwide, you know, how we show up every day, how we show up at conferences, how we show up at training, how we show up in the workspace with each other. I'm used to being part of high performing teams wherever I've been, whatever station I've worked, and I have a motto that excellence is transferable.

Adams: That idea—that excellence is transferable—has been Contee’s motto for many years.

Contee: It really kind of goes back to me being a kid. My mother, in terms of how we were raised, whatever we did, it didn't necessarily have to be perfect. But you had to put forth your best effort in everything that you did. If you were sweeping the floor or making your bed or whatever it was, you did it to the best of your ability.

And that translates in the professional space where everything that you do, you do it to the best of your ability. And when you do that, at least in my experience, what oftentimes happened is you're finishing, if not at the top, very near the top. I've been able to, over the course of my 30-something year career in law enforcement, achieve some incredible things for a young man from some challenged neighborhoods here in Washington, D.C., to ultimately grow up to be the chief of police of a major city police department and now assistant director. I think that's pretty cool to be able to do that, and I want to transfer that excellence to the FBI now.

Adams: Contee was born and raised in Washington, D.C. In 1989, he joined the Metropolitan Police Department as a cadet. He rose quickly through the ranks, serving in a variety of assignments and districts across the city and becoming a highly decorated officer. In 2021, he was sworn in as chief of the MPD. He retired in 2023 after 33 years of service.

Contee has described his career in law enforcement as an opportunity to achieve a better life for himself and his family.

Contee: I didn't come out the gate die hard wanting to be law enforcement. It really was a pathway out of poverty for me, to be honest with you. I grew up in a neighborhood called Carver Terrace in Washington, D.C., and had some personal family challenges that I was facing at a very young age.

I had to make a decision at the age of 17. I had enough credits in high school to attend high school half day, but the other half of the day, I attended a police academy and was paid for that. That certainly allowed me— bringing some income into the home—to be able to make different choices for me personally, as well as for my family.

Adams: What began as an opportunity, however, quickly became a calling for Contee.

Contee: I can tell you that it didn't take long for me to fall in love with what I do because I was able to immediately see the impact that I was able to have on the community that I grew up in. I was able to immediately see that there were thousands of people within the police department who were not the bad cops that you saw on TV.

I mean, they were about helping people. They were about making sure that communities were safe. And that's something, again, that I wanted to be a part of: something that was larger than who I was as an individual. But to be part of a larger group of people—and I see a lot of that in the FBI as well—but a part of a larger group of people who want to do things that will benefit the community. I mean, it's not something that you look to get rich off of or anything like that. Is it dangerous work? Absolutely. It's dangerous work. And I mean, you go out and you deal with some things and you see some things that you can never unsee.

But, in that space, I think about the moms that I've helped and the grandmothers that I've helped and the young people that I've mentored over the course of my career and who are doing things and productive in life and join the police department because of something that I said to them over time or pouring myself into them and helping them along the way. You know, the other thing that I've learned is that sometimes there are people watching you and you don't even realize that people are watching you and you later hear from them that, “You inspired me to do this because of your story.”

So I would just say to anybody who's interested in a career in law enforcement—whether it's the FBI, local law enforcement, whatever it is—if you have a heart for service and you have a heart for people, you'll love police work.

Adams: For Contee, that spirit of service to others extends beyond law enforcement. It’s what defines a community.

Contee: When you talk about building stronger communities together, it's everybody's responsibility, right? I have a saying that people respond differently depending on their proximity to pain. And that is a true statement, if ever, and I've seen it time and time again in the communities that I serve. When the issue is right there in front of your house, in front of your block, in front of your school, your store, your business—when it's right there—you feel differently about it.

The question is, now that you feel differently about it, what do you do differently? What do you do to collaborate with others to ensure the safety of your community?

Adams: Collaborating with others to ensure the safety of communities is exactly what Contee is working on in his new role with the FBI. He explains that, for him, it was easy to understand the goal of—and to want to be a part of—OPE.

Contee: I really was able to mentally attach myself to the mission of OPE through the lens of what the Bureau is attempting to accomplish in terms of how they manage relationships between state and local law enforcement agencies. It's something about that that just really excites me, quite honestly—being able to expand that footprint beyond what's happening in a specific area of the city that I was responsible for to a more national landscape of really kind of engaging different law enforcement agencies and organizations, both large and small, and really bringing to bear the resources of the FBI to help law enforcement entities all across the country.

My hope is that, through my leadership in the Office of Partner Engagement, that we really take our efforts to engage local law enforcement to the next level. And what I mean by that is that we are the best partner to all of our state and local law enforcement agencies around the country. Hands down, period, full stop. That is my goal.

Adams: To learn more about the work that Contee and his team are doing with the FBI’s Office of Partner Engagement, visit le.fbi.gov/ope.

Adams: This has been another production of Inside the FBI. You can follow us on your favorite podcast player, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or YouTube. You can also subscribe to email alerts about new episodes at fbi.gov/podcasts.  

I’m Perry Adams from the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks for tuning in.

[The music crescendoes a bit before fading out.]

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For additional information and resources, visit the Office of Partner Engagement website at le.fbi.gov/ope