Law enforcement suicide: Using the psychological autopsy for questions of line of duty deaths

Officers often walk alone when exposure to trauma whittles away their resilience

Two Capitol police officers have taken their own lives since the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. This information came after the two officers spent 5 hours fighting the insurrectionists sometimes in hand to hand combat often being humiliated and threatened. Jeffrey Smith, a Metropolitan D.C. Police officer, and Capitol Police Officer Howard Liebengood both “took their own lives in the aftermath of that battle” of January 6, according to an article in Politico on January 27, 2021. A third officer, Brian Sicknick, age 42 collapsed while on duty the day of the attack. He died in the aftermath of the insurrection a day or two later.

The manner of his death has been determined to be natural causes. Officer Sicknick died from multiple strokes according to the medical autopsy. Some reported seeing Officer Sicknick being struck in the head with a fire extinguisher during the riot. The official cause of death was stroke – or cerebral vascular attack and it is well-known that high stress situations can lead to stroke such as an insurrection or even shoveling one’s drive following a snow. Sicknick was only 42 years old and in good health prior to the Capitol attack. Officer Sicknick was afforded the honor of laying in honor in the Capitol Rotunda after death. Antoon Leenaars, past president of the American Association of Suicidology, described the patterns of thinking among depressed or suicidal persons, and explained how the use of “psychological autopsies” can uncover the key elements that are present in many suicides. This is an important first step in the battle to change officer suicide to become more attributed to line of duty death. This determination is owed to many of these brave men and women who died as a result of the recurring emotional trauma to which they were exposed.

“Jeffrey 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. 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.

Smith’s wife Erin reported after her husband took his own life

“On April 2, 2019, PERF and the New York City Police Department took an important step to elevate the national conversation on police suicide and to identify concrete actions that agencies can take to address this public health and public safety crisis. Our two organizations hosted a one-day conference at NYPD headquarters that brought together more than 300 law enforcement professionals, police labor leaders, researchers, mental health care and other service providers, policymakers, and others—including three brave officers who themselves have dealt with depression, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts in the past and who were willing to tell us their stories” according to published executory summary 2019. “The NYPD is making use of psychological autopsies, a research-based approach that attempts to better understand why someone took his or her life. Following an officer suicide, personnel try to reconstruct what was going on in the person’s mind by systematically asking a set of questions, in a consistent format, to the people with the greatest insights into the person’s life and mind—family, co-workers, and friends.” The psychological autopsies contribute to the existing database of information about law enforcement suicide in general, and they help guide individual prevention programs and establish in the line of duty rewards for those whose death’s may be directly associated with their recent tours of duty as in the example of the Capitol officers who died immediately following the trauma of the insurrection where each of them was prepared to die.

The multiple deaths by suicide have 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 (PERF) in 2019, after at least nine New York City police officers died by suicide that year. I was involved in the April 2019 presentation at 1 Police Plaza on the impact of LEO suicide as it related to the high incidence of police officer death by suicide. Police Commissioner James O’Neill gave an impassioned presentation imploring officers to get help and promising to “listen and eliminate stigma” of having trauma-related illness.

Regrettably, first responder suicide is generally not considered a line of duty death and as such, fails to yield the honor given to officers who die in car crashes, shoot outs, or other direct line of duty incidents. “Now, the surviving families of the courageous defenders of democracy, Jeffrey Smith and Howard Liebengood — who were buried in private ceremonies, want the deaths of their loved ones recognized as “line of duty” deaths”. These deaths lack the honor and pageantry that accompanied Sicknick’s memorial service in the Capitol Rotunda — Why is the distinction made between the many ways LEO’s die? 

The denial of this recognition diminishes the honor of one man’s service and by doing so, fails every man or woman who puts on a uniform by saying “your experience is yours alone”. And even worse, it amplifies the stigma attached to law enforcement deaths at a time when all else has failed them.

Michael Sefton, Ph.D. 2022

The careful analysis of antimortem exposure and actionable behavior that follows and event like January 6 or September 11 draw the clear, indisputable facts that link officer suicide to line of duty traumatic exposure. The denial of this recognition diminishes the honor of one man’s service and by doing so, fails every man or woman who puts on a uniform by saying “your experience is yours alone”. And even worse, it amplifies the stigma attached to law enforcement deaths at a time when all else has failed them. I cannot stand by this exception to what may be obvious line of duty exposure and police officer death especially after 9-11 and after the Capitol insurrection. But it should in no way minimize the loss of life attributed to suicide when years of exposure have gone unnoticed and even unreported by a law enforcement officer.

After the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Towers there was an increase in LEO suicide. Men and women who witnessed the enormity of the attack coupled with the deaths of hundreds of police officers and fire fighters lost the will to grudge onward by no fault of failure character of their own. They swam in the muck and got wet and could not recover from darkness that engulfed them. The psychological autopsy would quantify these wounds just as the pathologist counts entry and exit wounds from an ambush. 

The juxtaposition of these facts cannot be ignored. Every one of the hundreds of police officers put their lives on the line as a result of the former president’s truculent narcissism. It would be a dishonor to the men who gave their lives by denying the causal underpinning of their deaths. Suicide by law enforcement officers exceeds the number of officers who die in in gun fights, car accidents, on-duty heart attacks, attacks by citizens, calls for domestic violence, and other police calls for service. “This fact thrust these most private of acts into the national spotlight and made clear that the pain of the insurrection of January 6 continued long after the day’s events had concluded, its impact reverberating through the lives removed from the Capitol grounds” as written in a recent Washington Post report. “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.” according to a report in the Washington Post by Peter Hermann in February 2021.

There are things that must be done when law enforcement officers die as a direct result of the the calls they take and the trauma they experience that directly results in their death. Neither of these officers would have died if they had not jumped into the crisis taking place at the U.S. Capitol. Both men were solid members of the Capitol and Metropolitan Police Departments and had no history of behavioral health claims. Neither officer was in trouble with finances, gambling or substance abuse, internal affair investigation, or marital trouble. In the days that followed, Erin said, her husband, Capitol officer Jeffery Smith 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. Her husband was found in his crashed Ford Mustang with a self-inflicted gun shot wound that occurred on his way to the job.

Peter Hermann Washington Post 2-12-2021

Rioters swarmed, battering the officers with metal pipes peeled from scaffolding and a pole with an American flag attached, police said. Officers were struck with stun guns. Many officers were heard screaming into their radios “code-33” the signal for “officer needs help”. This usually is a signal bringing an “all hands” response to the scene of the emergency – in Metro DC, that would mean hundreds of officers would roll. Situations like this send chills down the spine of officers responding to calls for help – some are injured in car crashes racing to back-up officers in danger. It is always hoped that when the call for help goes out as it did that day that enough manpower will respond with enough force to push back on the crowd, however large. In this case, the crowd far exceeded the number of LEO’s available for duty and many officers expected to be killed by the mob. 

The psychological autopsy is a single case study of a death event that serves to uncover the psychological causes of death. This study would answer these questions and establish an understanding of worst case scenario of frontline exposure to trauma and possibly offer insight into underlying history that may have been anticipated and stopped. Without its use men and women die alone and often flooded with shame and loss of dignity. When law enforcement officers take their own lives this careful analysis of the hours and days preceding their time of death is essential to understand. “From this information an assessment is made of the suicide victim’s mental and physical health, personality, experience of social adversity and social integration. The aim is to produce as full and accurate a picture of the deceased as possible with a view to understanding why they killed themselves.This would answer the question as to whether or not the deaths may be considered to be line of duty, as they must. Psychological autopsy is probably the most direct technique currently available for determining the relationship between particular risk factors and suicide” Hawton et al. 1998

The evidence on Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) programs is thin, in part because these programs vary widely, with some representing basic officer awareness training and others composed of full-fledged and well-funded co-responder programs. However, the evidence on the impact of de-escalation training, which includes instructing police in how to identify and respond to people in crisis, is relatively strong.

Council on Criminal Justice https://counciloncj.foleon.com/policing/assessing-the-evidence/xvi-shifting-police-functions/ taken February 6, 2022.

I have proposed a Behavioral Health initiative in conjunction with changes in police policy and transparency that has been the central posit of social clamor since the death of George Floyd this summer. The International Association of Chief’s of Police (IACP) has a broad-based Mental Wellness program it is reporting on its website that highlights the importance of this kind of support. “The IACP, in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA)’s VALOR Initiative, is customizing a program specifically designed to help officers and agencies by enhancing resilience skills. The cost of such a program will reap rewards in the form of career longevity, officer well-being, officer morale, quality of community policing, and greater faith and trust in law enforcement in general. Without psychological autopsy systemic failures in training and support often go unnoticed leaving men and women without a life saver to hold on to.

This investigation is an individually designed case study that elicits a broad range of factual data regarding the antemortem behavior of a decedent in the immediate day or days leading up to the suicide. In this case, what are the events that transpired in the days before the two Capitol police officers took their own lives? The fact is that both men were exposed to incidents and participated in protecting the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Both men were engaged in hand to hand combat.  It is known that the insurrection resulted in the death of a fellow officer and the deaths of 4 other people engaged in violent mayhem in which these men and hundreds others may have been killed. Both men believed the insurgency was potentially deadly to them or their fellow officers. The psychological autopsy is especially important when first responders and essential workers are involved and die soon after. When LEO’s and first responders are put in fear of death or see other officers being placed in the direct line of fire, are vastly outmanned, and have no way in which to stop an attack, they are at high risk for the “hook” that comes from an acute stress reaction and over time and soon becomes a monkey on the backs of so many fine men and women.

Some agencies, such as the Fairfax County, VA Police Department, are beginning to implement periodic mental health check-ups for their officers and other employees. The goal is twofold: 1) to “normalize” the act of visiting a mental health professional, thus reducing the stigma against seeking mental health care, and 2) to identify and address potential issues early on. (PERF 2019)

“This heroic sequence of behaviors is besmirched by the bias against mental health responses to events that would bring any one of us to our knees. Men and women of law enforcement walk in the darkness, always in death’s shadow. It is time to recognize these officers and help them and their families to know they do not walk alone.”

Michael Sefton, Ph.D. 2018 Direct Decision Institute, Inc.

Departments should consider flexible job assignments or adding exercise to work schedules as a way to release stress. Mental health should be regularly addressed at roll calls, and departments generally have to reduce the stigma — in part by acknowledging the deaths. According to Dr. Leo Polizoti at the Direct Decision Institute, Inc. in Worcester, MA, an annual stress inventory should be conducted as part of the official officer evaluation program. This may be easily done by tracking high lethality calls that may be followed by mandatory defusing/debriefing as close to high stress incidents as feasible. Officers in Worcester, MA are given paid time for these aftermath behavioral health sessions.


Hawton, K., Appleby, L., Platt, S., Foster, T., Cooper, J., Malmberg, A. & Simkin, S. (1998). The psychological autopsy approach to studying suicide: a review of methodological issues. Journal of Affective Disorders 50, 269–276.

IACP (2021) Officer Resilience Training Conference https://www.theiacp.org/projects/law-enforcement-agency-and-officer-resilience-training-program, Blog post taken February 13, 2021

Police Executive Research Forum. (2019) Washington, D.C. 20036 Copyright by Police Executive Research Forum

Buckley, M and Sweeney, A. (2019) Chicago Tribune. Alarms sound after 6 suicides in Chicago PD. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-met-chicago-police-suicides-20190315-story.html?

Hermann, P. (2021) Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/police-officer-suicides-capitol-riot/2021/02/11/94804ee2-665c-11eb-886d-5264d4ceb46d_story.html

Donovan, E. (2019) Former Director of Boston PD Stress Unit.” https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/po-ed-donovan-former-directorboston-pd-stress-unit-brian/

2 thoughts on “Law enforcement suicide: Using the psychological autopsy for questions of line of duty deaths

  1. I could not be any more encouraged by the news that the widow of Metropolitan police officer Jeffrey Smith has received information from the department investigation into the death of Metropolitan police officer Jeffrey Smith’s. Erin was notified just today that her husband’s cause of death has been changed from suicide to brain injury sustained while on duty at the capital building during the January 2021 insurrection. This battle was brought forth by his spouse Erin Smith who could see from the moment her husband returned from the capital after a 12 + hour day that he was unwell. Ultimately Officer Smith was deemed to be fit for duty and ordered to return to duty the day he died from a gunshot wound to his upper body. Going forward, agencies have the duty to the rank and file to carefully measure the underpinnings of law enforcement deaths to understand causal implications of deaths like Metro PD Officer Smith’s. These will play a large role in eliminating the stigma of suicide and greater understanding of the role of exposure to repeated physical and psychological events has on the diagnosis of PTSD that is know to drive self-destruction, in some officers. Certainly, one can see the traumatic exposure these officers endured on January 6, 2021 and must understand why human beings need to be understood – especially following high lethality events such as the insurrection in the setting of an on-going pandemic.

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