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WASHINGTON – When Congress approved millions in aid for the battered U.S. Capitol Police Department this year, lawmakers included a health facility to be named for a beloved officer who died three days after the riot Jan. 6.
The Howard C. "Howie" Liebengood Center for Wellness is expected to serve as a resource and an acknowledgment of the mental health support needed to sustain the department, which lost the 51-year-old officer to suicide after the Capitol attack.
Liebengood's death, and those of three District of Columbia Metropolitan Police officers who took their own lives after being deployed to the siege, compounded a fracture in American life that reverberates nearly 10 months after the attack.
Yet as families and colleagues from across the nation gather Thursday to honor fallen officers at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, Liebengood's name and the three others who died by suicide after Jan. 6 will not be eligible for engraving on the marbleized limestone regarded as sacred ground for U.S. law enforcement.
Personal story: My husband's suicide after Jan. 6 was a line-of-duty death
For years, officers' families and mental health advocates have sought to call attention to glaring inequities in how law enforcement and the country respond when police take their own lives in close proximity to their involvement in traumatic events. The national memorial and the federal Public Safety Officers' Benefits program do not recognize suicides as "line-of-duty" deaths, a designation that not only memorializes officers' service but provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and other assistance to survivors.
"The pervasive stigma is insane," said Karen Solomon, co-founder of Blue H.E.L.P., a group that has tracked and honored officers lost to suicide since 2016.
The Capitol attack, and the suicides that followed, reignited a national discussion about what constitutes a job-related death and the policies that lawmakers, survivors and advocates say perpetuate a long-standing bias that law enforcement has failed to confront.
"The defining standard for a line-of-duty death should be when police officers die as a result of events that occurred during the performance of duty," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest officer union. "The standard should not be how the officer died."
Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., who pushed to secure the additional resources for the Capitol Police this year, said a deeper "culture" change is required to address the needs of officers and their families.
"It's never been done before," Wexton said, referring to the revamping of officer death designations. "The culture is going to take a long time to change."
Biggest death threats to police: COVID-19 and suicide
Until reels of video exposed the withering trauma that battalions of officers confronted Jan. 6, the coronavirus represented the most discussed threat to the ranks of American law enforcement.
Since 2020, the COVID-19 epidemic has been the leading killer of police, and it continues its deadly march in 2021. Of the 351 deaths this year, 224 fatalities were attributed to the coronavirus, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks law enforcement deaths.
The epidemic highlighted a chilling new threat, but advocates for law enforcement survivors said the coronavirus numbers obscured another risk stalking police for years: suicide.
More than 700 officers, including corrections officers, have taken their own lives since 2018, including 115 this year, according to Blue H.E.L.P. The numbers have remained fairly steady each year at slightly more than 170, except for a spike to 238 in 2019.
Though coronavirus-related deaths were presumed to be line-of-duty losses and eligible for federal survivor benefits, including a payment of $370,376, suicide is excluded from such recognition even when the deaths have occurred after emotionally jarring incidents on duty.
The attack Jan. 6, the tragic suicides that followed and wrenching congressional testimony from officers who described the psychological scars from that assignment, added urgency to the policy debate.
"I know that the families (of the deceased officers) are struggling," said Solomon of the Blue H.E.L.P. group. "But it's still unpopular among some (law enforcement officials) who believe that officers don't deserve the benefits or recognition for their service."
A 'sensitive issue' and a 'national crisis'
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the law enforcement think tank Police Executive Forum, said suicide remains such a "sensitive issue" for police chiefs that departments sometimes don't stage full police funerals for officers who take their own lives, unlike the elaborate memorial services that follow most officer deaths.
"An event like Jan. 6 elevates the institutional concern about work and its connection to mental health and suicide," said Wexler, whose group published a report in 2019 calling officer suicides a "national crisis."
"It is imperative that we do talk about the problem, try to understand it more fully, and find new ideas for preventing suicide among our officers," the report concluded, noting that "the risk of suicide among police officers is 54% greater than among American workers in general."
Marcia Ferranto, chief executive officer at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which maintains the memorial where officials are set to gather Thursday for a candlelight vigil, said the organization is not reviewing suicide deaths for inclusion on its monument in downtown Washington.
The policy is guided, Ferranto said, by "stringent criteria" that officer deaths take place in the line of duty.
She said the group has devoted "time and resources on suicide prevention." Included in the schedule of this week's activities commemorating Police Weekend, is a conference Friday dedicated to officer wellness and suicide prevention.
'A wrong which must be rectified'
Lawmakers call for much more.
This year, Reps. David Trone, D-Md., and Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., reintroduced a proposal – the Public Safety Officers Support Act – that would expand the federal benefit program to include suicide and disability assistance related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for police, firefighters and emergency medial technicians.
"Just imagine you’re a Capitol Police officer on January 6th and the trauma has left you unable to continue working," Trone said. "The benefit program, as it currently stands, doesn't provide any avenue to seek disability benefits...The bill would provide disability benefits if an officer isn't able to do their job due to work-related trauma, such as January 6th. In the unthinkable circumstance where an officer passes away due to this trauma, their family may seek death benefits...."
Prevention experts: What to say (or not say) to someone who might be suicidal
There may be no more powerful proponent for a reclassification of suicide than Serena Liebengood, the widow of officer Liebengood.
In a March letter to Wexton, the family's congressional representative, Liebengood described the reluctance to designate her husband's suicide as a line-of-duty death as "a wrong which must be rectified."
"Our family is still reeling from both his suicide and the tragic events of January 6 which caused his death," Liebengood wrote. "Our family remains convinced we have a unique and important opportunity to honor Howie; to support much needed USCP reforms; and to promote positive change around mental health issues for his fellow law enforcement officers, both with the Capitol Police and with law enforcement agencies generally.
"To accomplish these goals," she said, "his death must be designated as being 'in the line of duty'; the USCP must be held accountable for its actions and structural reforms instituted; and the mental and emotional well-being of these officers can no longer be overlooked or taken for granted."
If you or someone you know are struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online. Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis at 741741.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police suicides should be line-of-duty deaths, Capitol survivors say