Washington, DC – The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has ruled that the death of a U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) officer who committed suicide three days after responding to the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, will be treated as a line-of-duty incident.
The 15-year department veteran took his own life on Jan. 9, 2021, according to The New York Times.
Officer Liebengood’s widow, Serena Liebengood, had been fighting for more than a year to have her 51-year-old husband’s suicide treated as a line-of-duty death.
Serena Liebengood wrote about his death in an op-ed published by USA Today on the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Capitol riot.
“My beloved husband… was on duty that day and continued to serve nearly around the clock on Jan. 7, Jan. 8 and Jan. 9 with minimal sleep between shifts,” she wrote. “Sleep-deprived and exhausted, my husband took his life the night of Jan. 9. If it had not been for the events of Jan. 6 and the unremitting work schedule on the ensuing days, I believe my husband would still be here.”
Due to the DOJ’s recent determination that Officer Liebengood’s suicide qualifies as a line-of-duty death, his family will now be entitled to benefits under the Public Safety Officer Benefits Program, DCist reported.
His family will receive a lump-sum payment, although the exact amount was not immediately clear, The Washington Post reported.
The U.S. Department of Labor has not yet determined whether Officer Liebengood’s relatives will be given access to his pension benefits – an issue that is separate from the DOJ’s designation.
A USCP spokesperson said the department’s leaders were pleased with the DOJ’s decision to recognize Officer Liebengood’s suicide as a line-of-duty death, The Washington Post reported.
“Suicide has become an epidemic in the law enforcement profession,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to work with the Liebengood family to address this important issue.”
Serena Liebengood and his siblings, John Liebengood and Anne Winters, released a statement expressing their satisfaction with the decision.
“The determination is significant, healing, relieving, and we are grateful for it,” the statement read. “Anyone who knew Howie knew he was kind-hearted and fiercely loyal. We all desperately miss his one-of-a-kind smile and his warm, gentle temperament, but we take some solace in knowing that Howie officially has received this well-deserved honor.”
The family further noted that the designation was made possible by new changes to the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits program, and noted they hope the handling of Officer Liebengood’s death “will serve as a model for other entities that offer similar benefits and recognition.”
“This is an important step in a longer effort to change outdated processes and attitudes,” the family’s statement read. “We also hope that this helps other families who have felt the pain of losing a loved one to suicide.”
The determination was made possible by bipartisan legislation passed by Congress in August, The New York Times reported.
The bill, which was later signed into law, expanded the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits program to officers who develop post-traumatic stress disorder or who commit suicide after experiencing trauma while performing their law enforcement duties.
Under the new law, the program is required to presume that officers who commit suicide after experiencing distressing on-duty events killed themselves due to those events, the New York Times reported.
The legislation also established a way for law enforcement officers to seek disability benefits if they develop PTSD after experiencing traumatic events in the line of duty any time after 2018.