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Congress passes bill, inspired by Jan. 6, recognizing officer PTSD, suicides

From left, Erin Smith, widow of D.C. police officer Jeffrey Smith; Sgt. Aquilino Gonell of the Capitol Police; and Sandra Garza, the longtime partner of fallen Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick, hold hands during a July 21 hearing on the Jan. 6 attack. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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Inspired by the mental health toll that the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot took on first responders, the U.S. Senate passed a bill Monday night that creates a pathway for families of officers who die by suicide to access death benefits.

The unanimous passage of the Public Safety Officer Support Act means it now heads to President Biden’s desk, following prolonged advocacy by the partners of multiple officers who were on duty at the Capitol during the Jan. 6 assault and died by suicide in the aftermath. The bill also would amend the federal Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program to make it easier for officers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder linked to their work to access disability benefits.

“Our law enforcement officers serve on the front lines of events that can inflict severe emotional trauma — from mass shootings to protecting the United States Capitol during a violent insurrection,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), whose district includes the family of D.C. police officer Jeffrey Smith, who died by suicide in the aftermath of the riot. The officers suffering work-related PTSD should have the “same benefits as those suffering from a physical injury,” Beyer said.

‘Some are still suffering’: Months after Capitol riot, police who fought the mob contend with physical, psychological pain

Because officer suicides have long not been considered to be “in the line of duty,” the families of some of those officers — including Smith and Capitol Police officer Howard Liebengood — spent months pressing local and federal officials to honor the officers in the same way as any others who die in the line of duty. Their public advocacy sparked a broader national discussion about mental health within law enforcement, and the Capitol Police created a new mental wellness center in Liebengood’s name.

Erin Smith, Jeffrey Smith’s widow, had long said that injuries her husband sustained during the attack — he was hit over the head with a crowbar-like object — had a direct nexus to his suicide days later. In March of this year, the D.C. retirement board finally agreed to consider Jeffrey Smith’s death in the line of duty and extend her benefits.

Now, for Erin Smith, the passage of the Public Safety Support Act means fewer widows will have to go through what she did.

“This law will forever change the conversation on police silent injuries,” Smith said in a statement to The Washington Post.

She and her attorney, David P. Weber, called on Biden to both allow Jeffrey Smith to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery — next to Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick, who was injured on Jan.6 and died hours later — and hold a public bill-signing ceremony with the widows of the officers who died by suicide after Jan. 6. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Almost a year ago to the day, the widows were in the Rose Garden on August 9, 2021, when their husbands were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal,” Weber said in a statement. “But more was needed — recognition that silent injuries are real. In a year, they have accomplished that mission, and they and their loved ones deserve the thanks of a grateful nation.”

Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) introduced the House and Senate versions of the bill with Republican co-sponsors Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (Pa.) and Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.)

Patrick Yoes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, cheered the bill’s passage in a statement Tuesday.

“The families of officers who are lost to suicide suffer the same pain and grief as the family of any other officer lost in the line of duty and this legislation recognizes that,” Yoes said.

If you or someone you know needs help, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.

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