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August 02, 2022

Congress Clears Bill to Make Officer Suicides Eligible for Death Benefits

Credit: The New York Times, Luke Broadwater

WASHINGTON — Congress has approved bipartisan legislation that would extend a benefits program for the families of public safety officers who are killed in the line of duty to officers who die by suicide as a result of a traumatic event on the job, including those who took their own lives after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

The legislation, which would also allow officers to seek disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing a traumatic event in the line of duty, passed the Senate by unanimous consent on Monday. That cleared the legislation, which passed the House in May by a lopsided margin, for President Biden, who was expected to sign it.

The bill’s passage comes after four police officers who responded to the mob violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, died by suicide.

Officer Howard S. Liebengood of the Capitol Police and Officer Jeffrey Smith of the District of Columbia police, both of whom 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, the department said.

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, Officer Smith’s suicide was ruled a line-of-duty death in March by the Police and Firefighters Retirement and Relief Board in Washington.

The legislation was sponsored in the Senate by Senators Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, and John Cornyn, Republican of Texas.

“The Senate took an important action to recognize that our nation must honor and support surviving family members of police officers, firefighters and emergency responders that tragically died by suicide after experiencing work-related trauma or exposure to traumatic events while serving their communities,” Ms. Duckworth said in a statement.

Mr. Cornyn said that officers “shoulder heavy burdens each and every day as they work to keep us safe.”

The legislation would expand the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program, 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.

The program reviews more than 1,000 claims for benefits submitted each year, and has awarded nearly $2 billion in assistance since 1976.

The bill would for the first time allow the families of officers who die from suicide after traumatic events to apply to the program for death benefits, directing the fund to presume that such suicides are the result of on-the-job duties in traumatic circumstances. It would also create a new avenue for officers to seek disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD.

The bill 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 would be eligible to apply for benefits.

The legislation was sponsored in the House by Representative David Trone, Democrat of Maryland, and Representative Guy Reschenthaler, Republican of Pennsylvania.

“This bill is about getting rid of the stigma around mental health,” Mr. Trone said in an interview. “We should have parity between physical and mental health.”

Mr. Trone, whose legislation was inspired by the death of Officer Thomas J. Bomba of the Montgomery County police in 2019, said he believed the bill would motivate other boards and funds that award benefits to officers to follow suit.

The bill was supported by the National Association of Police Organizations, the National President of the Fraternal Order of Police, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and other law enforcement groups.