Washington, DC – The families of two law enforcement officers who committed suicide after responding to the Jan. 6 Capitol Building riot are pushing for them to be recognized as having died in the line of duty.
U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) Officer Howard “Howie” Liebengood, 51, took his own life while off-duty on Jan. 9, The Washington Post reported at the time.
He was among the many law enforcement officers who responded to the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, USCP Labor Committee Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Chairman Gus Papathanasiou said in a press release one day later.
Officer Liebengood served the USCP for nearly 16 years, and was assigned to the Senate Division at the time of his death, the department said in a press release.
DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Officer Jeffrey Smith, a 12-year veteran of the department, died by suicide on Jan. 15, The Washington Post reported at the time.
Chief Contee said Officer Smith was also among the officers who responded to the U.S. Capitol riot, according to the New York Post.
University of Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions research professor John Violanti said that law enforcement officers have “been under tremendous scrutiny by the public” since the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the violent riots that erupted across the country thereafter, The Washington Post reported.
Violanti, who studies police suicides, said he believes officers throughout the nation have been suffering as a result of the anti-police sentiment.
He further noted that law enforcement officers were already beat-down and exhausted both mentally and physically due to having to deal with the months of violent protests that preceded the U.S. Capitol riot.
“There’s a feeling of a huge lack of support, not only from the public but from administrations,” he told The Washington Post.
Over 70 USCP officers were injured during the chaos of the Jan. 6 uprising, according to the paper.
Another 65 MPD officers were also hurt.
Officers were attacked with metal poles, doused with bear spray, and dragged down flights of stairs while trying to quell the mayhem at the Capitol, The Washington Post reported.
One officer lost a finger during the fight, while another suffered a heart attack, the MPD said.
During former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial last week, Rep. David Cicilline (D – Rhode Island) said the Capitol rioters called the officers traitors and Nazis during the violent clashes.
“Several Capitol police officers have reportedly threatened self-harm in the days following the riot,” Cicilline said, according to The Washington Post. “And in one case, an officer voluntarily turned in her gun because she was afraid of what might happen.”
Acting MPD Chief Robert Contee said the department immediately began holding group counseling sessions for officers in the wake of the riot, The Washington Post reported.
“We wanted to get to the most people in the least amount of time,” Chief Contee said.
Over 30 group meetings took place, as well as individual counseling for some officers.
The family of Officer Smith, who was hit in his face shield and helmet with a metal pole during the riot, said he did not attend any counseling sessions while he was out recovering from his injuries, The Washington Post reported.
Officer Smith, one of 850 MPD officers who responded to the Capitol building, was not specifically contacted by the department about speaking with a counselor, his family said.
Officer Smith continued working after the assault and later went to the police medical clinic, where he was prescribed pain medication and sent home, according to his wife, Erin.
She said he was in constant pain in the days that followed, and he refused to interact with anyone or to leave the house, The Washington Post reported.
“He wasn’t the same Jeff that left on the 6th,” Erin later said. “I just tried to comfort him and let him know that I loved him…I told him I’d be there if he needed anything, that no matter what, we’ll get through it. I tried to do the best I could.”
She said her husband never struggled with depression prior to the riot.
Officer Smith was sent back to work after a follow-up appointment on Jan. 14, The Washington Post reported.
He fatally shot himself in the head while on his way to the precinct the following day.
“If he didn’t go to work that day, he would still be alive,” Erin told The Washington Post.
Officer Liebengood’s widow, Serena, said she also believes her husband’s suicide should be treated as a line-of-duty death.
“I cannot imagine the trauma Howie and his colleagues faced on January 6th or the pain they have endured afterwards,” Serena told The Washington Post. “In Howie’s case, it cost him his life. His service, sacrifice and memory should be honored with official recognition that he died in the line of duty.”
Receiving such a designation is unlikely, especially considering suicide is specifically excluded for extra payouts in many jurisdictions, according to the paper.
In Washington, DC, line-of-duty deaths must not be caused by “an intention to bring about [the officer’s] own death,” and must be “the sole and direct” result of an injury suffered while on duty, The Washington Post reported.
Department and union officials have not commented on whether or not they would support line-of-duty designations for Officer Liebengood or Officer Smith, The Washington Post reported.
“It is time the District recognized that some of the greatest risks police officers face lead to silent injuries,” Officer Smith’s family’s attorney, David Weber, told the paper. “Why do we say that one person is honored and another person is forgotten? They all faced the exact same circumstances.”