WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has classified the suicide of Howard Liebengood, a Capitol Police officer who defended the Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack and took his own life days later, as a line-of-duty death, approving benefits for his wife, Serena.
The approval of benefits through the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program was the first such designation for an officer who died in connection with the Capitol riot since Congress passed a law that expanded eligibility to include those who suffer from the traumatic aftereffects of what they experience while on duty.
“The determination is significant, healing, relieving, and we are grateful for it,” Officer Liebengood’s family said in a statement. “We hope the changes to the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (P.S.O.B.) Program, which allowed Howie to receive this designation, will serve as a model for other entities that offer similar benefits and recognition. This is an important step in a longer effort to change outdated processes and attitudes.”
In August, Congress approved bipartisan legislation that would extend the program — created to compensate the families of public safety officers who are killed or severely injured in the line of duty — to officers who die by suicide or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after a distressing event on the job.
The bill’s enactment came after four police officers who responded to the mob violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 died by suicide. Many others sustained severe emotional scars.
Understand the Events on Jan. 6
Officer Liebengood and Officer Jeffrey Smith of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, who also defended the Capitol during the attack, took their own lives shortly afterward. Months later, Officer Gunther Hashida of the D.C. police, 43, a member of the Emergency Response Team within the Special Operations Division, was found dead in his residence. Officer Kyle DeFreytag, 26, a member of the force since 2016, was also found dead that month.
Family members of the officers and members of Congress have pressed to classify the suicides as line-of-duty deaths, though federal and state laws governing such deaths generally bar benefits in such cases. In a rare case, Washington’s Police and Firefighters Retirement and Relief Board in March ruled Officer Smith’s suicide a line-of-duty death.
The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program is a joint effort of the Justice Department and state and local agencies that provides financial support to the families of police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians who die in the line of duty or who have been permanently disabled as a result of a physical injury sustained on the job.
The program reviews more than 1,000 claims for benefits submitted each year, and has awarded nearly $2 billion in assistance since 1976.
The new law directed the fund to presume that suicides by officers after traumatic events while on duty are the result those on-the-job duties. It also created a new avenue for officers to seek disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder. It applies to traumatic events that occurred after 2018, meaning that the families of officers who died after the Jan. 6 riot and officers who have suffered from PTSD in its aftermath are eligible to apply for benefits.
Officer Liebengood’s family said on Monday that the decision classifying his suicide as a line-of-duty death provided some measure of peace after an enormous loss.
“Anyone who knew Howie knew he was kindhearted and fiercely loyal,” his wife, Serena Liebengood, and two of Officer Liebengood’s siblings, Anne Winters and John Liebengood, said in a joint statement. “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.”
Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia and Officer Liebengood’s home-state senator, said that he “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,” Mr. Kaine said. “His death in the wake of the horrors of the Jan. 6 insurrection was a heartbreaking loss for his family and for every American who believes in the promise of our democratic institutions.”