After the Jan. 6 riot, police departments confront the mental health toll of the job

·6 min read

CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. — Police officers from around the nation arrived in Washington, D.C., last week to honor those from their ranks who have died in the line of duty. Two officers who died shortly after fighting rioters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, however, are not among those being honored.

Erin Smith, whose husband, Jeffrey Smith, died by suicide days after responding to the Capitol riot, wants to change that.

“It would give him the recognition that he’s due,” she said. “If it wasn’t for Jan. 6, he would still be here.”

Smith was a member of the D.C. Metropolitan Police. The other officer who is not being honored, Howard Liebengood, was a member of the U.S. Capitol Police and also responded to the riot. He took his own life on Jan. 10. Because they died by suicide, their deaths are not recognized as being in the line of duty.

Watch an exclusive interview with Erin Smith on Sunday’s "Nightly News."

The debate over police suicide comes as the U.S. is in the middle of a national reckoning about policing, fueled by the killing of black men at the hands of police officers. The discussion has also led many to ask about the people behind the guns. Efforts to address policing and hold them accountable have come with advocates and police departments pushing for money to address mental health issues among the uniformed.

The police reform bill that fell apart in the Senate last month would have included tens of millions of dollars for police departments across the country to address the growing mental health needs.

For families like the Smiths, help didn’t come soon enough.

Image: Jeffrey Smith (Jack Reznicki)
Image: Jeffrey Smith (Jack Reznicki)

Erin and Jeffrey Smith were married in 2019. She says he was loving, caring and a dedicated friend. He left for work on Jan. 6 assuming he would be covering a run-of-the-mill protest, something he did often as a police officer in downtown D.C.

But soon after his shift started, she received a text that read, “London is Falling,” which she said meant that the Capitol had been overtaken.

She watched the live coverage, checked Twitter and followed news alerts on her phone, looking for any sign that her husband was OK. But while he made it home that night, he wasn’t OK.

Jeffrey Smith was hit in the head at least once. His bodycam footage, shared with NBC News, shows that he was attacked with his own baton. A federal lawsuit filed by Erin Smith accuses two men of hitting him, but neither has been charged.

Before he came home the day of the riot, Jeffrey Smith texted his wife to say he was going to the Fire and Police health clinic because he got “hit.” She said he was told to take Ibuprofen and go home.

Immediately, Erin noticed a difference. Her husband, who had no prior history of depression or mental health issues, became irritable, distant, reclusive and angry.

“He kind of declined as he was lying in bed. He didn't want to do anything, sleepless nights up pacing around, just not his normal self,” she said.

At his follow-up appointment eight days later, Erin Smith says, he was barely examined and ordered to go back to work the next day.

She made his lunch, walked him to the car and kissed him goodbye. He never made it to work. He died by suicide before he got there.

Erin and Jeffrey Smith (Jack Reznicki)
Erin and Jeffrey Smith (Jack Reznicki)

Police officers who die while on duty from a gunshot, a car accident, a heart attack and even Covid are designated as “line-of-duty” deaths. The distinction gives officers official burials and recognition on the national police memorial, and surviving family get benefits, including health insurance.

In his review, a former D.C. chief medical examiner said there was “a direct cause and effect relationship between the line of duty work trauma on Jan. 6 and Jeffrey Smith’s death on Jan. 15,” adding that Smith had “no prior history of depression, mental health issues or mental health treatment.”

But suicide is not considered a line-of-duty death, even though experts say many police suicides can be traced directly to their jobs.

“First responders are subjected to stressful incidents more often than any other profession perhaps except for the military,” Steven Hough, co-founder of Blue H.E.L.P., an organization that provides mental health assistance for officers and tracks police suicide. He points out that heart and lung damage are treated as line-of-duty injuries.

“How can we say the mind is not impacted by the job?” Hough asked.

In most years, suicide either matches or outpaces line-of-duty deaths. So far this year, 116 officers nationwide have died by suicide. (Because Covid is classified as a “line-of-duty” death, those numbers have increased this year and last.)

Erin Smith has asked the Police and Firefighters’ Retirement and Relief Board for line-of-duty distinction. They have not yet made a determination. Hough said police departments’ official recognition that a suicide is a line-of-duty death are “few and far between.”

D.C. Metropolitan Police have not responded to NBC News’ inquiries.

Members of Congress are joining Erin’s fight. Some Democratic members of the Virginia congressional delegation sent a letter to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser urging her to provide line-of-duty death benefits.

“As a legal matter, Officer Smith’s symptoms were clearly the ‘sole and direct result of a personal injury’ since he had never experienced these symptoms prior to being attacked on January 6,” Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and Reps. Don Beyer and Jennifer Wexton write in the letter obtained by NBC News. “He cannot have had intent to bring about his own death if he was not in control of his actions due to severe brain trauma, any more than someone who suffers a medical emergency while driving and inadvertently crashes can be said to have had intent to bring about their own death.”

Kaine says the district should do the right thing, but he didn’t rule out legislation that would categorize suicide as a line-of-duty death.

“Of course it's work related. And so even a ruling in these two cases that that's a line of duty death could tell other people who are dealing with, you know, their own unresolved emotions after January 6, that that's OK,” Kaine said,

Erin says the designation would go a long way.

“The recognition,” she said, would say “that what they do is important not only for them and their legacy but for their families — just to know that the police department stood behind them.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

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