One of the U.S. Capitol Police officers who died by suicide in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol breach has been determined to have died in the line of duty, according to his family and officials.
Howard Liebengood killed himself on Jan. 9, several days after joining the response to the breach, according to the U.S. Capitol Police (USCP).
Family members of Liebengood, 51, asked the Department of Justice to classify the death as in the line of duty, and the department agreed, relatives said in a Nov. 21 statement released through the Fraternal Order of Police, a police union.
"The determination is significant, healing, relieving, and we are grateful for it," the family said.
The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.
The designation is the first under the reformed Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program, which was altered by the bipartisan Public Safety Officer Support Act. The bill, sponsored in the House of Representatives by Reps. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) and David Trone (D-Md.), extended the benefits program to first responders who die by suicide or are left disabled as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder linked to trauma from their job.
“Anyone who knew Howie knew he was kind-hearted and fiercely loyal. We all desperately miss his one-of-a-kind smile and his warm, gentle temperament, but we take some solace in knowing that Howie officially has received this well-deserved honor,” the Liebengood family said.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who co-sponsored the companion bill in the Senate, welcomed the new development.
"Officer Howie Liebengood was often one of the very first people I saw at the Capitol every day and was well known to my entire staff. It was clear that being a U.S. Capitol Police Officer was more than a job to him—he was a man who dedicated his life to serving others and spent 15 years defending the halls of democracy," Kaine said in a statement, adding that Liebengood's death "was a heartbreaking loss for his family and for every American who believes in the promise of our democratic institutions."
"We have a responsibility to carry with us his spirit of service and to give his family the recognition and unwavering support they deserve. That’s why I urged the Department of Justice to approve Public Safety Officers’ Benefits for his wife Serena. I am gratified she’s getting those much-deserved benefits today," Kaine said.
“If it had not been for the events of Jan. 6 and the unremitting work schedule on the ensuing days, I believe my husband would still be here," she said at the time.
Other ReactionsOthers also celebrated the development, including Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.).
Wexton said she was "very pleased" with the decision and called herself "awed by Serena's courage in the wake of this tragedy, as an advocate not only for the benefits her family deserves but also in raising awareness of the mental health struggles law enforcement face and fighting the stigma that keeps many from seeking help."
Patrick Yoes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said that the successful claim "is an important step in acknowledging that law enforcement suicides are service-connected and should be seen for what they are—line of duty deaths."
The USCP also reacted positively to the decision.
"Suicide has become an epidemic in the law enforcement profession," an agency spokesperson told news outlets in a statement. "We will continue to work with the Liebengood family to address this important issue."
Four SuicidesMultiple USCP officers died by suicide after Jan. 6, which saw officers clash with protesters and rioters before and after the breach of the Capitol.
Jeffrey Smith, another officer who worked on Jan. 6, died by suicide, according to his family and the Metropolitan Police Department.
Some 64 Metropolitan Police Department officers sustained documented injuries on Jan. 6 and "many more" were actually injured, Chief Robert Contee testified to Congress. About 114 USCP officers said they were injured on that day, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.