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'It's OK to not be OK' | After just 4 days on the job, DC's acting police chief faced rioters at the Capitol

Acting Police Chief Contee had several officers beaten during the Capitol riot, and one later died by suicide. He still worries about mental health within MPD.

WASHINGTON — After 31 years of serving, protecting and enforcing laws, Robert Contee thought he’d seen just about everything. That is, until January 6, 2021. Four days into his new position as D.C.'s acting police chief, Contee faced the very first test of his new leadership: an insurrection at the Capitol.

The image of armed and angry American citizens intent on attacking police officers in the nation’s capital is still seared into Contee's memory. 

“I was there when this first started unfolding," Contee said. "I wasn’t in some off-campus location or something, I was there on the West Front Lawn watching these officers being impacted by the munitions that were in the air."

The call to send help came in at 12:58 p.m., and Chief Contee says his officers responded in minutes. They were some of the first on scene to support Capitol Police in a mission to reclaim the citadel of our democracy.

“We sent as many as 1,200 officers to assist USCP in defending the Capitol," Contee said. "That was something the Metropolitan Police Department did as a lead-up, in terms of pre-positioning and resources." 

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Not long after they arrived, the officers Contee sent for reinforcement were under attack. They engaged in several arduous hours of hand-to-hand combat, and for some of Contee's men and women, that day is still playing out in their daily lives.

“They’re dealing with it as human beings, having gone through that experience," Contee said. "There are some who are doing better than others.”

Since Jan. 6, several officers shared harrowing sagas of being trapped in the melee, fighting to survive. Officers Mike Fanone, Lila Morris and Daniel Hodges were honored for their bravery during the Super Bowl.

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But there were many more officers who struggled and are suffering in silence. One DC Police officer – Jeffrey Smith – died by suicide just days after the riot.  Contee said when it comes to mental health, he is trying to lead by example.

“It’s OK to not be OK," the acting chief said. "I think that’s very important to say to our police officers. But I think it’s more important that we make sure that they get the care that they need.”

Contee said he’s still going through a debrief with the department’s employee assistance program. He made the choice to go public with his own outreach to give visibility to what he, as the leader, was feeling, too.

And how is he feeling?

"The leader is experiencing anger," he said. "The leader is experiencing disappointment. The leader is experiencing disbelief that the Capitol of the United States is encompassed by a steel fence."

RELATED: FBI report warning of Capitol riot violence 'didn't make it' to Capitol Police, MPD chiefs

As Contee walked along that steel fence two months after the attacks, he talked about how the city could reimagine security at the Capitol. He said the people of D.C. and the nation shouldn’t be cut off from the people’s house.

“This footprint can be reduced a bit, and I think we can still have the same security posture," he said. "As long as we have this fence here, it’s just a constant reminder – if you will – of the many things that happened on January the 6th." 

RELATED: Don't want the Capitol to be fenced off? Here's how we could still protect it

In the wake of the Capitol riot, there’s also a new posture within the ranks. Contee has talked about doing background checks to root out potential extremism.

“I have certainly not seen any outward signs of that, but I think that you know, in this new normal those are things we need to be concerned about," Contee said when asked if he had seen signs of extremism within his own department. "And, I certainly intend on doing everything that I possibly can to make sure we don’t have those types of individuals." 

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The acting chief knows there will be more challenges to come, including leading a changing police force – with calls to reimagine policing – and a series of confirmation hearings to move the process to affirm his new role with the department forward.

“I have a motto and that is 'excellence is transferable,'" Contee said. "Whether we’re defending the Capitol, or whether we’re doing the things we do in the community – day in and day out – I wanna do it in the spirit of excellence." 

Contee has committed to making sure that community members feel that excellence coming from him all the way down to an officer responding to a call for service. He knows that not everyone shares his view of the department being one of excellence, as cries to "defund" it grow louder. 

But he says with the added responsibilities for his officers, his job is to make sure the city is secure, and he’s concerned that taking resources away will make that job all the more challenging.

Confirmation hearings will begin in the coming weeks for acting chief Contee and WUSA9 will continue to update you on his future plans for MPD. 

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