U.S. Capitol combat shows why police deaths by suicides are sacrifices in the line of duty
Our View: Suicides among U.S. troops are presumed to be deaths in the line of duty and families get military benefits. Police officers deserve no less.
- Suicides among service members are presumed to be deaths in the line of duty
- Police officers driven to despair are no different than soldiers
When U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell testified before Congress last month, he described being more afraid for his life fighting rioters on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 than at any time during his service in the Army in Iraq.
Gonell recounted that as blows from insurrectionists rained down on him and he was sprayed with chemicals, "I could feel myself losing oxygen and recall thinking to myself, 'This is how I'm going to die.' "
There are periods of police work that have often been likened to combat and never so much as when thousands of insurrectionists attacked the Capitol and a phalanx of outnumbered officers fought for hours to defend it.
Physical and psychological pain
Nor does the comparison end with violence endured. Physical and psychological pain persists for police as much as for any soldier in combat, with a tragic parallel lurking at the dark end of that spectrum: deaths by suicide.
In 2003, when America's all-volunteer military was pressed into fighting two extended wars at once in Iraq and Afghanistan, a resulting strain on service members led to a sudden and sharp increase in suicides.
After the hand-to-hand fighting on Capitol Hill Jan. 6, four police officers who fought off rioters have taken their lives.
There, however, comparisons between military and police end.
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Where suicides among service members are presumed to be deaths in the line of duty unless proven otherwise – a practice that has afforded stricken families in 95% of those deaths full military benefits – police agencies deny similar payouts.
This needs to change.
Nine days after Jan. 6
There is no stronger evidence for this failure in police policy than the death of Washington Metropolitan Police Department Officer Jeffrey Smith nine days after he defended the Capitol.
"Things changed for Jeffrey on Jan. 6," his widow, Erin Smith, wrote in a column for USA TODAY.
The 12-year veteran of the Washington, D.C., police force had been beaten and struck in the head with a metal pole during the fighting and suffered a painful neck injury. "He didn't know if he was going to get out alive," his wife later told a forensic psychiatrist. "He said it was the worst day of his life."
There was evidence of emotional trauma. Officer Smith became more isolated, quiet and short-tempered. He couldn't sleep or eat, and his wife would wake at night to find him pacing a hallway or, in a few cases, crying as he lay in bed. He stopped walking his beloved dog, or calling his parents.
After a brief visit to a police clinic on Jan. 14, Jeffrey Smith was ordered back to work. The next day, as he headed into the department, the officer shot himself.
Life insurance and family benefits
D.C. police have never deemed a suicide as a line-of-duty death. But in court papers filed last month, Erin Smith argues that her husband's death was the direct result of the trauma he suffered defending the Capitol. The widow of Capitol Police Officer Howard Liebengood, who also battled that day at the Capitol and then died by suicide, has raised the same issue.
Soldiers, Marines, sailors and other troops whose trauma-related suicides are classified as line-of-duty deaths are entitled to $500,000 in life insurance and death gratuity payments. A similar federal benefit of $370,000 for families of police officers who die in the line of duty are denied in cases where the death occurs by the officer's actions.
When acting D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee testified before Congress about the service and sacrifices of those who died after the siege, he specifically included Smith and Liebengood.
Police officers driven to despair by the trauma of their work are no different than soldiers who suffer mental illness because of the rigors of combat. Whether their uniforms are Army green or police blue, the government owes these brave warriors the same gratitude of benefits.