The text confirmed the frightening images Erin Smith was watching on live stream from the couple’s home in Virginia: The Capitol had been overrun.
Six minutes after Smith sent that text, a Capitol Police officer inside the building shot and killed a woman as she climbed through a smashed window next to the House chamber.
Smith, also inside the Capitol, didn’t hear the gunshot, but he did hear the frantic “shots fired” call over his police radio. He later told Erin he panicked, afraid rioters had opened fire on police, and wondered whether he would die.
Around 5:35 p.m., Smith was still fighting to defend the building when a metal pole thrown by rioters struck his helmet and face shield. After working into the night, he visited the police medical clinic, was put on sick leave and, according to his wife, was sent home with pain medication.
In the days that followed, Erin said, her husband seemed in constant pain, unable to turn his head. He did not leave the house, even to walk their dog. He refused to talk to other people or watch television. She sometimes woke during the night to find him sitting up in bed or pacing.
“He wasn’t the same Jeff that left on the 6th. . . . I just tried to comfort him and let him know that I loved him,” she said. “I told him I’d be there if he needed anything, that no matter what, we’ll get through it. I tried to do the best I could.”
Smith returned to the police clinic for a follow-up appointment Jan. 14 and was ordered back to work, a decision his wife now questions. After a sleepless night, he set off the next afternoon for an overnight shift, taking the ham-and-turkey sandwiches, trail mix and cookies Erin had packed.
On his way to the District, Smith shot himself in the head.
Police found him in his cherished Ford Mustang, which had rolled over and down an embankment along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, near a scenic overlook on the Potomac River.
He was the second police officer who had been at the riot to take his own life.
'Service and sacrifices'
For days, Smith’s wife in Virginia and his family in Illinois grieved privately.
That changed Jan. 26, when acting D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III testified behind closed doors to a congressional committee, telling lawmakers about the “service and sacrifices” of officers who died after having been at the siege.
Contee named three officers. One was Brian D. Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer who collapsed after engaging rioters and later died. Another was Howard Liebengood, 51, a Capitol officer who took his own life three days after the riot.
The third was Smith.
That two police officers had died by suicide after confronting rioters thrust the most private of acts into the national spotlight and made clear that the pain of Jan. 6 continued long after the day’s events had concluded, its impact reverberating through the lives removed from the Capitol grounds.
Now, families of Smith and Liebengood — who were buried in private ceremonies lacking the pageantry that accompanied Sicknick’s memorial service in the Capitol Rotunda — want the deaths of their loved ones recognized as “line of duty” deaths.
The suicides have also renewed attention on another troubling and often hidden issue: Police officers die by their own hands at rates greater than people in other occupations, according to a report compiled by the Police Executive Research Forum in 2019, after at least nine New York City police officers died by suicide that year. That report said officer suicides outpace deaths of law enforcement members killed in shootings and vehicular crashes.
Since George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis and the sometimes volatile demonstrations that followed in cities across the country, “the occupation has been under tremendous scrutiny by the public,” said John Violanti, a research professor at the University of Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions.
“I think that officers are suffering from this,” said Violanti, who studies suicides by police officers. “There’s a feeling of a huge lack of support, not only from the public but from administrations.”
Even before the Capitol riot, police officers in the District were exhausted after months of sustained demonstrations for racial, social and political justice, some of which turned violent. Later, there were more violent confrontations when right-wing extremists came to rally in support of President Donald Trump.
About 850 D.C. police officers — nearly a quarter of the force — responded to the Capitol riot, and 65 were injured in hours of hand-to-hand combat. More than 70 Capitol Police officers were hurt.
Newly released audio from D.C. police at the riot shows how police were overwhelmed. “Multiple Capitol injuries, multiple Capitol injuries,” one officer screamed over his radio. Later an officer shouted, “We’re still taking rocks, bottles and pieces of flag and metal pole.” And an officer pleaded for help: “We lost the line. We’ve lost the line. All MPD, pull back to the upper deck, ASAP.”
Officers were struck with poles, dragged down stairs and sprayed with bear spray. One suffered a heart attack.Another lost a finger, D.C. police said.
Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), one of the House managers, said Thursday at Trump’s impeachment trial that rioters questioned officers’ patriotism and loyalty, calling them Nazis, traitors and un-American “for protecting us.”
“Several Capitol police officers have reportedly threatened self-harm in the days following the riot,” Cicilline said during the trial. “And in one case, an officer voluntarily turned in her gun because she was afraid of what might happen.”
Contee knew the emotional toll would be devastating. One officer, he recalled, had told him the siege was scarier than two tours as a soldier in Iraq.
The chief, who said he planned to make officer mental health a focus of his leadership, called on department counselors to hold group sessions, thinking that officers would be seen quickly and that sharing their experiences might ease any concerns about getting help. More than 30 meetings were held, with individual follow-ups for some.
“We wanted to get to the most people in the least amount of time,” Contee said.
Smith’s family attorney said the officer did not attend any counseling sessions while he was on sick leave. He also said no one from the department contacted Smith about attending.
An unbearable return
Smith, a car enthusiast who grew up in Illinois, moved to the D.C. area 12 years ago after graduating from college with a degree in sociology, having spotted openings on the D.C. police force.
He spent his career in the 2nd District, his latest beat roughly 40 square blocks east of the White House.
He met Erin, who works for an executive search firm, several years ago on the Internet; they shared a love for cars, a topic that dominated their initial conversations.
They married in 2019 and settled in Virginia.
He took careful care of his prized black 2015 Mustang and his Rottweiler-lab mix, which predated Erin. “We always joked,” she said, “it was the car, the dog and me.” Feb. 2 would have been their second anniversary.
He typically worked night shifts, and on Sundays, Erin made it a ritual to drive into the District and share dinner with Smith on a bench on the Mall. Smith, in his uniform, never hesitated to give tourists directions, and he once sent Erin to her car to fetch jumper cables so he could restart a woman’s dead battery with his police cruiser.
Smith had worked many of the demonstrations that began over the summer, telling his wife that a chunk of concrete thrown at officers once only narrowly missed his head. She said he talked about one of his friends injured on a protest line who felt he didn’t get adequate care.
But he mostly shielded his wife from the intimate and sometimes scary parts of his job.
“There were events that I’m sure happened that bothered him,” Erin said, but he didn’t want her to worry.
Hours after the siege at the Capitol had ended, Smith later told his wife, he found himself with other officers outside a hotel where insurgents were believed to be staying. Their orders were to arrest any who came outside, at that point breaking a citywide curfew imposed by the mayor to restore order.
At 9 p.m., he told two supervisors he was in pain from being hit by the pole, and he was sent to the Police & Fire Clinic in Northeast Washington, run by a contractor and the first step for nearly every officer injured on the job.
He checked in at the clinic at 10:15 p.m., according to records shared by his family.
On his police injury form, he wrote: “Hit with flying object in face shield and helmet.” He added that he “began feeling pain in my neck and face.”
He checked out 1:31 a.m. on Jan. 7, his status listed as “sick,” though no diagnosis is noted. Erin does not know if he told the staff about any emotional issues.
“He told me it was chaos,” she said of the clinic. “There were so many people there.”
In an interview, Contee said 16 officers injured in the riot went to the clinic Jan. 6, and he believes Smith was seen more quickly there than he would have at a hospital emergency room. Officers who were severely injured that night, including the one who suffered a heart attack, were taken directly to hospitals; others went to the clinic in the days that followed the riot.
The chief described care given to officers as “adequate” but noted, “We can always do better.”
Erin has questions about her husband’s care at the Police & Fire Clinic. She said he told her he was seen for only about 10 minutes when he returned Jan. 14 and was approved to return to work the following day.
She wonders whether there were indications of a serious head injury or signs of emotional distress, and she is seeking his complete medical file. Police officials would not comment on specifics of Smith’s visit, citing privacy laws. Representatives for PFC Associates, which runs the clinic, did not respond to an interview request.
Smith didn’t talk much about the details of what he experienced during his hours at the Capitol, Erin said. She didn’t press, but even from the little she learned, she thinks the images she saw on live stream did not fully capture what police experienced. Before the riot, the family’s lawyer said, Smith had not been diagnosed with or exhibited signs of depression.
Erin is convinced the trauma of Jan. 6 made the thought of returning to policing unbearable for him.
“If he didn’t go to work that day,” Erin said, “he would still be alive.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) invoked Smith and Liebengood’s names during Sicknick’s memorial at the Capitol, and acting Capitol Police chief Yogananda D. Pittman included a mention of Liebengood along with Sicknick in a videotaped statement released last week. She said that many officers are “understandably struggling” and that the officers’ deaths “will not be in vain.”
On Tuesday, the lead manager at Trump’s impeachment trial, Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), recited injuries officers suffered and said that “two officers have taken their own lives.” The Capitol siege occurred the day after Raskin’s son was buried after taking his own life on New Year’s Eve.
“I cannot imagine the trauma Howie and his colleagues faced on January 6th or the pain they have endured afterwards,” said Liebengood’s widow, Serena Liebengood. “In Howie’s case, it cost him his life. His service, sacrifice and memory should be honored with official recognition that he died in the line of duty.”
But classifying Smith and Liebengood’s deaths as “in the line of duty” could be difficult.
Experts caution that suicide is not typically due to a singular event, even a traumatic one, and precise reasons are generally rooted in a wide variety of factors that are often never fully understood.
And in many jurisdictions, including the District, rules or laws governing pensions exclude extra payouts in suicides. D.C. law says the fatality must be “the sole and direct” result of an on-duty injury and one not caused by an “intention to bring about his own death.”
The chairman of the D.C. police union, Greggory Pemberton, said he would support a “thorough investigation” into the reasons behind Smith’s suicide, but he stressed that a line-of-duty designation for Smith at this time would be “premature.” The head of the union for the Capitol Police did not respond to questions about Liebengood.
In the interview, Contee sidestepped whether he would support such a request for Smith. A spokeswoman for Capitol Police did not return a request for comment.
The attorney for Smith’s family, David P. Weber, has enlisted the help of two members of Congress from Virginia, where the two officers lived. A representative for Sen. Tim Kaine (D) said he supports the family’s efforts.
Rep. Don Beyer (D), who represents the district where Smith lived, said the officer died “pretty much as a direct result” of the riot. “We need to recognize that his death also was tragic, and his actions also were heroic.”
Erin had watched as President Biden and other luminaries visited the Rotunda to pay respects to Sicknick as he lay in honor, his remains taken by police escort to Arlington National Cemetery. Officers who die in the line of duty are also remembered on memorial walls and in annual ceremonies.
She believes her husband also deserves a place among the heroes who battled at the Capitol that day.
“It is time the District recognized that some of the greatest risks police officers face lead to silent injuries,” Weber said. “Why do we say that one person is honored and another person is forgotten? They all faced the exact same circumstances.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.