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Dying in the line of duty
Sensemaker audio

Dying in the line of duty

Dying in the line of duty

Four police officers have taken their own lives since the Capitol riots in Washington DC in January, but their deaths are not considered “in the line of duty”. Why?


Transcript:

Claudia Williams: Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, the mental health crisis in American police forces and why their families are being left behind.

A warning, this podcast contains references to suicide.

*** 

At 2.38pm on the 6th January, Erin Smith received a text message from her husband.

It read: “London has fallen”.

It was a reference to a film, which follows a plot to assassinate world leaders as they attend a funeral in Britain. But Erin Smith’s husband wasn’t in London.

He was a patrolman who’d been deployed to defend the US capitol from a violent mob. 

[Clip of protesters at the Capitol riot on January 6th]

And not long after he sent that text message, Erin Smith’s husband was hit on his face-shield and helmet with a “flying object” during the Capitol riot.  

Despite being hit, he carried on working and after the riot, he was told to guard a hotel where members of the mob were staying. 

“This afternoon I announced a citywide curfew for the District of Columbia beginning at 6pm this evening going until 6am tomorrow morning…”

D.C. Mayor Bowser ordering a citywide curfew

But he began feeling pain in his neck and in his face and eventually, a sergeant sent him to check in at the Police and Fire Clinic.

After a few hours, Erin Smith’s husband arrived home with some ibuprofen.

But she says in the days after, her husband slipped into a deep depression. He became uncharacteristically angry, had no interest in walking their dog, and stopped his daily calls to his parents. 

Despite all that, after another visit to the clinic, just over a week later, he was cleared for returning to work.

Erin Smith’s husband never made it back to work.

He shot himself in his car whilst driving on the George Washington Parkway on the way to his shift. He used his service weapon.  

***

He was the second officer to take their own life following the Capitol riot in January. And since his death, two more officers on the Capitol that day have also died by suicide.

Now it’s difficult to directly tie their deaths to the insurrection but congressional representatives believe that because of the mental stress caused by the riots their deaths should be considered job related. 

But under current law, death by suicide is not considered a “line of duty” death. And because of that, families of police officers who take their own lives aren’t given the financial benefits they’d get if an officer, had for example, been shot and killed by a suspect.  

So the Capital riots, and the tragic fact that now four officers there that day have taken their own lives, raises an important question: should these police officers be considered as dying in the line of duty?

***

“The world’s largest organisation for police says it’s fighting a mental health crisis with an increasing number of suicides by officers.”

CBS This Morning

Suicide in the police force is a growing problem in the United States. 

In 2019 alone, 228 officers took their own lives, a number that’s most likely underreported. It’s estimated that the number of officers who died by suicide is more than triple the number fatally injured in the line of duty. 

“These officers don’t want to go home and burden their spouse with the ugliness they’ve accounted for the last 8 or 10 hours. These officers see more evil in the course of a 10 hour tour than the most anybody sees in a lifetime.”

Father Dan Brandt, Chaplain at the Chicago Police Department speaking to CBS Evening News

Like Erin Smith’s husband, they see a lot.

Here’s Karen Solomon, the Co-founder of Blue H.E.L.P. which promotes suicide prevention for police officers.

“The thing is, an officer never really takes off their uniform. They can’t always just shut down and go home… you’re gonna have that leftover stress of someone got in their face tonight or they saw somebody dead tonight or they resuscitated somebody and saved their life.”

Karen Solomon speaking to NBC News

But it’s not just police officers who are suffering. US military deaths by suicide are also stark. 

“Based on the reports they have and the numbers that I’ve calculated, between 2001 and 2019 during the time of the Global War on Terror, my approximation is there’s 115,000 veterans who have died by their own hands.”

Charles Smith speaking at a TED talk in 2020

That’s Charles Smith. He was in the military for more than 15 years and so he’s seen his fair share of suicide by fellow veterans. But and it’s a big but… there’s a key difference in how the families of the dead are treated.

The US military commonly awards benefits to families of soldiers who take their own lives. In fact, the military treats more than 90 percent of suicides as “line of duty” deaths.

So there’s a clear discrepancy.

And even in the police force, they do recognise the physical dangers of the job. In Florida, if a police officer dies of a heart attack that’s assumed to be a death in the line of duty because of the stress of the job. 

And that’s why Erin Smith is asking for change. And it seems as if some people are beginning to listen.

***  

Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, has said that if police leaders do not approve line-of-duty benefits for those who took their own lives after the riot, then Congress will look for ways to change the law.  

And within the police, leaders are beginning to encourage officers to talk about their mental health. 

“Cops have know that there are avenues for help… and it’s not a weakness to ask for help.”

James O’Neill, Commissioner, NYPD

The odds of receiving financial benefits are still stacked against Erin Smith… but for her, it’s more about getting dignity for her husband.

If the world can recognise that he died in connection with what he experienced on January the 6th… it might just help open up the conversation about policing and the mental health of front-line officers.

Today’s episode was written and produced by Imy Harper.