WASHINGTON – Standing in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda where pro-Trump rioters violently attacked the building less than a month ago, members of the U.S. Capitol Police solemnly watched as remains of a fallen officer lost in the siege arrived to lie in honor Tuesday night.
The ceremony was a painful reminder of the cost of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, where Officer Brian Sicknick was killed and others endured head injuries, cracked ribs and smashed spinal discs, and the lingering emotional toll of standing toe-to-toe with an overwhelming and violent mob.
Five people died and at least 140 officers in the Washington, D.C. Police Department and the United States Capitol Police have been injured as a result of the hours-long attack. Two more officers who were at the Capitol Jan. 6 "took their own lives" in the weeks following, said acting D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee in testimony before Congress last month. It's unclear if the deaths can be directly connected to the events at the Capitol.
The fallout of the Jan. 6 siege extends far beyond the grieving families and physical wounds left behind, mental health experts say, and is likely to take a mental toll on the officers who responded to the attack. In the aftermath of the riot, lawmakers are pushing for help for a police force and Capitol support staff afflicted by the trauma.
"Other harm from this traumatic day will be widely felt but possibly unacknowledged," acting D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee told lawmakers in a Jan. 26 briefing. "Law enforcement training neither anticipates nor prepares for hours of hand-to-hand combat."
John Violanti, a 23-year police veteran and professor at the University at Buffalo who focuses on police stress and mental health, said the Capitol riot was the culmination of a tumultuous year for members of law enforcement, beginning with the nationwide protests over the police death of George Floyd and the subsequent scrutiny of police reform.
“It’s an occupation under siege,” Violanti said. “You have officers feeling like they have a lack of support coupled with this sort of unusual traumatic event at the Capitol. It's going to prey on their minds forever,” he said.
In fact, a 2018 nationwide study found more law enforcement officers died by suicide than in the line of duty. Researchers say police officers and firefighters are at a higher risk for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide than any other profession, yet many decline to seek treatment, according to the Ruderman Family Foundation, a nonprofit group focusing on mental health research.
Four House lawmakers spanning the ideological spectrum sent a letter to the House’s chief administrative officer, the official charged with the chamber’s administrative duties, on Jan. 28 asking for additional resources for Capitol staff as they grapple with the trauma of the attack.
The House already provided mental health and support services for lawmakers and their staff but did not extend their use to all staff including contractors, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.; Jason Crow, D-Colo.; Nancy Mace, R-S.C.; and French Hill, R-Ark., pointed out.
“As Members of Congress, it is our responsibility to ensure resources are in place to help our community heal,” they said. But they have not yet received a response.
David O'Boyle, a spokesperson for the House chief administrative officer, said in a statement the Office of Employee Assistance, which provides support like confidential counseling services, webinars and resources for coping with trauma and stress for House staff, "has skillfully responded to the most demanding critical incidents, including the January 6 attack on the Capitol."
The "team's tireless efforts" would "not subside," he said.
Hill told USA TODAY he had joined on to the effort after talking with other House lawmakers about how to best help frontline workers in the Capitol, and they decided they wanted to have an “after-action capability to help the men and women in uniform” and others in the "Capitol ecosystem."
Other lawmakers told USA TODAY they had been in touch with and checked in on the Capitol Police and other staff around the Capitol.
Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., a former 9-1-1 dispatcher, told USA TODAY she had been in touch with Capitol Police dispatchers, many of whom were traumatized from having had to listen to the chaos on Jan. 6.
“They were victims of crime too” and “they deserve some healing,” she said of the dispatchers and other law enforcement staff.
She’d talked to officers in the Capitol about the riot and said you could read it in officers’ faces “how upset they are when you talk to them…you can hear it in their voice.”
Jeff McGill, a police officer and co-founder of BLUE H.E.L.P., a Massachusetts-based police suicide prevention group that tracks the national rate, said the riot likely had a profound effect on Capitol Hill police as the protests they often encounter are relatively calm and in a controlled setting.
McGill, who earned a doctoral degree for his research on perceptions of mental health among millennial officers and now oversees policy academy training at Northwest Florida State College, said the culture of silence at some police organizations remains a barrier to confronting trauma and stress on the job.
"We teach officers to be in control of everything all of the time and the problem is when they're faced with an incident that shatters the illusion of control, it challenges their identity," McGill said, referring to the Jan. 6 siege. “We still have a lot of officers who struggle to cope, and they do so in silence rather than ask for help.”
BLUE H.E.L.P., which tracks confirmed suicides and relies on data from law enforcement agencies, families and online searches, found 176 police officers died from suicide last year and 18 have so far in 2021. There is no federal repository tracking police suicide and experts say estimates could be higher as some families opt out of reporting the cause of death or describe it as accidental.
Former President Donald Trump in June signed the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act, which directed the FBI to establish a national database to track and analyze suicides at the federal, state, tribal and local levels within a year.
But the lack of national database prevents police departments from developing effective mental health strategies and suicide prevention protocols to understand where they’re making a difference, according to Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who chairs a key panel overseeing funding of the Capitol Police, said the Capitol Police need time to rest if anything. They had been continuing to work 12-hour shifts even after the riot, he said, which would only have a worse effect on their mental health. He had worked to connect the USCP with the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., which specializes in providing care for psychological trauma, he said.
Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., said she had checked in on about a half-dozen officers. It's a very close force, she said, and “it’s really hard for them.”
People at the Capitol that day had “acute, need-based trauma” that required specific relief, said Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan.
The massive security breach led to mounting questions over how pro-Trump supporters were able to force their way inside while lawmakers were certifying President Joe Biden’s election victory. Though several missteps were identified in preparing security for the ceremonial event, the Capitol Police bore the brunt of the blame.
“You can imagine being one officer trying to block a door where thousands of people are trying to get in and it’s up to you to stop them. You may be thinking you’re not going home tonight,” Violanti said. “And in the middle of this trauma, they’re getting blamed for a lack of preparation and that’s not their fault. It's a feeling of betrayal.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs has aided in the effort, deploying two of its mobile vet centers to Capitol Hill to provide mental health resources and counseling for USCP officers, members of the National Guard and congressional staff struggling in the wake of the insurrection.
But some experts say one of the major hurdles to expanding mental health resources in law enforcement is gaining an officer’s trust and getting them to open up to people outside their force.
Stephanie Samuels, a psychotherapist who strictly works with law enforcement, founded CopLine, a confidential 24-hour hotline for active and retired officers to deal with different stressors, to tackle that challenge.
“You can make all the resources in the world available and throw limitless money at it, but the bottom line is if they don’t trust the services, they’re never going to use them,” she said.
CopLine, which is run by retired law enforcement officers trained in counseling, receives an average of 300 calls a month and about 96% of those are “bad day calls,” according to Samuels.
“They went from being a hero on the front line of the COVID pandemic to being the enemy,” she said of last summer's protests over police brutality. “That societal change for these men and women and their families have been incredibly stressful and we are clearly seeing that reflected in both the call volume and content of the calls.”
In grappling with the fallout of traumatic events, experts say it’s important to educate officers on the signs and symptoms of trauma. Violanti praises some police departments for offering training for peer-to-peer counseling.
McGill said creating a peer support system is key to getting officers to open up about what they experienced, but he also stressed that mental health services should be prioritized before tragedy strikes.
"You don't want to be coming up with resources in the middle of a crisis,” he said. “You need to have a clear plan of how to integrate these services early on when nobody's needing them.”
Wild, the Democrat from Pennsylvania, said lawmakers could use the moment to “normalize mental health services.”
“Instead of just burying and not talking about it and being ashamed of mental health issues in our families... let's normalize mental health care – and that's going to require resources,” she said.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or chat online.
Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7, confidential support when you dial 741741.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Capitol riots: Congress asks for mental health services for officers