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DOJ: Officer’s suicide after Jan. 6 riot counts as line of duty death

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A Justice Department office has ruled that Capitol Police officer Howard Liebengood — who killed himself days after encountering rioters during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection — died in the line of duty, according to his family and authorities.

The designation from the Justice Department’s Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program means Liebengood’s family will receive a lump-sum payment. The precise amount was not immediately clear, but it will be in line with what relatives of other federal law enforcement officers killed while performing their duties have received.

In August, President Biden signed the Public Safety Officer Support Act that made it easier for families of officers who die by suicide to access death benefits. The president of the national Fraternal Order of Police said the claim filed by Liebengood is the first under that new law.

“The determination is significant, healing, relieving, and we are grateful for it,” Liebengood’s family said in a statement, which was sent on behalf of Liebengood’s wife, Serena, his sister Anne Winters and brother John Liebengood.

The designation does not affect whether relatives can access the officer’s pension benefits, which are overseen by an agency within the Labor Department. The request for those benefits is pending, a family spokeswoman said.

Liebengood patrolled the grounds outside Senate office buildings the day of the assault, and worked nearly around-the-clock in the days that followed, his family has said. He encountered rioters but did not battle them physically. He died by suicide three days later.

The Justice Department did not comment on Liebengood’s case but said in a statement its Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program “works closely with survivors, injured officers, and agencies to obtain the required documentation to comply with the PSOB law and its implementing regulations.”

A Capitol Police spokesman said agency leaders are pleased with the Justice Department’s decision. “Suicide has become an epidemic in the law enforcement profession,” the spokesman said in a statement. “We will continue to work with the Liebengood family to address this important issue.”

Patrick Yoes, the national FOP president, said in a statement that the decision “is an important step in acknowledging that law enforcement suicides are service-connected and should be seen for what they are — line of duty deaths.”

In March, a D.C. retirement board granted a full pension to the widow of D.C. police officer Jeffrey Smith, who took his life after he was injured in the Capitol riot. The decision gave her a yearly annuity equal to 100 percent of her husband’s salary. The D.C. Police and Firefighters Retirement and Relief Board said Smith’s head injury that day “was the sole and direct cause of his death.”

Wife of D.C. police officer who took own life after Capitol riot presses city to recognize his death

Police agencies historically have been reluctant to honor officers who die by suicide. D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III, who has mentioned Smith while speaking publicly about the cost police bore from responding to the insurrection, has raised questions about the connections between the riot and the officer’s death.

Contee and department lawyers wrote in a letter to the D.C. retirement board that it would be “pure speculation” to link Smith’s suicide to the attack, saying there is “no direct evidence of Officer Smith’s mind-set at the time of his death.”

In the statement on Monday, the Liebengood family addressed the struggle for recognition to change the prevailing view. “This is an important step in a longer effort to change outdated processes and attitudes,” the family said. “We also hope that this helps other families who have felt the pain of losing a loved one to suicide.”

Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick died a day after his collapse during the riot. The medical examiner ruled that his death was from natural causes. Two men were arrested and charged with assaulting him; both have pleaded guilty.

Sicknick lay in honor at the Rotunda, and President Biden attended his memorial.

Two D.C. police officers who were at the Capitol on Jan. 6 took their own lives in the months afterward; their families have not spoken publicly.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia, where both Smith and Liebengood lived, was one of the original sponsors of the law making it easier for families of officers who die by suicide to access benefits. In a statement, he praised the federal pension board’s ruling on Liebengood.

“He was a man who dedicated his life to serving others and spent 15 years defending the halls of democracy,” Kaine said. “His death in the wake of the horrors of the January 6 insurrection was a heartbreaking loss for his family and for every American who believes in the promise of our democratic institutions. We have a responsibility to carry with us his spirit of service and to give his family the recognition and unwavering support they deserve.”

Two officers who helped fight the Capitol mob died by suicide. Many more are hurting.

On Monday, Liebengood’s family described the officer as “kindhearted 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 said, adding, “We look forward to continuing to reduce the stigma around mental health and suicide for public safety officers — who make sacrifices for us all.”

Tim Barber, a Capitol Police spokesman, said Chief Tom Manger plans to discuss with the Capitol Police Board, which governs policy for the agency, whether to add Liebengood’s name to the memorial list of officers who died in the line of duty. The office of the House Sergeant at Arms, which oversees the Capitol Police Board, said the issue will be on the board’s agenda at its next meeting.

David P. Weber, who represents Smith’s family, said he has made a similar request to D.C. police. He said he has not yet heard back from the department. Dustin Sternbeck, a police spokesman, said the matter remains under review.

If you or someone you know needs help, text or call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 800-273-TALK.