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

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. Jeffrey Smith, a D.C. Police officer, and Capitol Police Officer Howard Liebengood both “took their own lives in the aftermath of that battle” according to an article in Politico on January 27, 2021. A third officer, Brian Sicknick died during the insurrection and his manner of death has not yet been officially determined. Some reported seeing Officer Sicknick being struck in the head with a fire extinguisher during the riot.

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 shoot outs or other direct line of duty incidents. And deaths by suicide do not bring family members the death benefits they deserve. Two police officers have died by suicide after confronting rioters at the Capitol that were sent by Commander in Chief Donald Trump. This fact was brought forth by House Impeachment Managers during Trump’s second impeachment trial recently completed.These men must be afforded the honor and benefits provided to any surviving spouse of a line of duty death because that is why these men died. 

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 this 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 Jan. 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. 

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. A transparent psychological autopsy would show the factors that triggered the terminal events leading to each man’s death. For their part, members of Congress spoke highly about the three police officers who died as a result of the riot.

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” and usually a signal bringing an “all hands” response to the scene of the emergency. 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 that there will be enough manpower to push back on the crowd, however large. In this case, the crowd far exceeded the number of LEO’s available for duty. 

 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. When law enforcement officers take their own lives this careful analysis of the hours and days preceding their time of death is essential. “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

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.

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, becomes a monkey on the backs of so many fine men and women.  Michael Sefton, Ph.D. 2018 Direct Decision Institute, Inc.


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

The fine art of being present: A Chaplain’s call for the spiritual connection with front line cops

Sometimes being present in the moment is enough to allow feelings of vulnerability to emerge and for healing to begin. Cops, and I dare say fire fighters, are not used to being vulnerable. Often less is more when is comes to shared space, personal pain and having a connection with one or more people who understand. A quiet moment of reflection after a difficult call may be enough to diffuse the experience of trauma and provide damage control going forward. Career hardiness and satisfaction requires that some moments be recognized with a circle of shared vulnerability and authentic empathy that can be just a few seconds to minutes.

Police Chaplaincy since 1800’s

During the coronavirus after a particularly deadly shift, members of ICU teams took a moment to share the names of those who had died in their care. These were somber events that acknowledged the losses and a measure of desolation shared among team members. People undergoing enormously stressful events can unburden themselves only if they acknowledge their inner feeling state. “We’ve seen chaplains accompany COVID patients in their last moments when loved ones could not be present. The year 2020 inflicted deep wounds on many in our communities and chaplains were there offering support,” said Wendy Cadge, the project’s principal investigator and Senior Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives at Brandeis University

“When we can feel and acknowledge our deepest fear – it can be liberating and reduce the perceived stigma of being vulnerable and in pain.”

Elissa Epel, Ph.D., UCSF, as quoted in NY Times

Police, fire, and first responder agencies across America have called upon the chaplaincy when their membership has experienced an out-of-the ordinary exposure to trauma like fatal car crash, death by suicide, death of a member, school or mass shooting, and more. Some of these are more routine like a notification of the sudden death of a family member. Meanwhile, other incidents leave a searing imprint of the entire event like the shooting of over 20 Sandy Hook elementary school students in Newtown, CT. It has been frequently mentioned that exposure to death and uncivilized brutality has an impact on wellness and personal resilience. Not a surprise. In the case of Sandy Hook how can any member of law enforcement or EMS ever forget that day? But what can be done?

Police chaplains is one part of the solution. The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab received two grants totaling $750,000 from the Henry Luce Foundation in the second half of 2020 to continue building and supporting resilience in chaplains and other spiritual care providers across the country. Chaplains often find themselves on the front line and frequently encounter operational chaos when they are called upon to minister to the troops. Yet that rarely stops them. They were there at Sandy Hook in 2012. The new program at Brandeis University in Boston aims to train chaplains to be better equipped for things like Sandy Hook or any community event that impacts large groups of people.

In Boston, the call went out that a firefighter was down. This during a 2-alarm fire in Watertown, MA. The department chaplain Father Matthew Conley was needed “now” at the Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA for the Anointing of the Sick – known to many as “the last rites.” Fr. Matt had not been on scene during the incident as it appeared to be a routine call. But like so many calls it went south in a hurry.

Firefighter Joseph Toscano was near death from a medical emergency suffered while on duty fighting the fire. It was a hot summer day. He was 54-years old and had a large family of a wife and 5 children. The family were all members of the Catholic faith at a parish a short distance from Watertown. For many Catholics, the anointing of the sick is something to bring about reconciliation for someone who may wish to ease their suffering on the journey toward death.

Firefighter Toscano died that day while doing the job he was trained to do. The Last Rites involve prayers and the final Holy Communion known as the Viaticum. These were something Fr. Conley had done many times before. But when he arrived at the Mt. Auburn Hospital that morning he was met by a phalanx of Watertown police and fire fighters. As he walked into the emergency department of the large Cambridge, MA hospital he knew right away by the look in their eyes that this was no ordinary blessing. He was called to minister, first, to the dying public servant, his wife and children who had been brought to his bedside at the trauma center. But what’s more, he was tasked with consoling the entire brotherhood who looked to him for comfort and hope when no amount of prayer could bring back their fallen brother. But he listened, and he heard their pain, and validated their experience.

“You are here for all of them”, he would say, “and I am here for you.” Fr. Matt Conley sharing the words of former Parish Administrator Fr. Kevin Sepe at Watertown Collaborative.

The story is told that as Fr. Conley dealt with the enormity of the pain felt by all who felt the sudden loss of the career firefighter, when in-walked Fr. Kevin Sepe, the Watertown Collaborative priest administrator. The presence of Father Conley brought a strong empathic presence to the family who had lost their husband and father and to the first line firefighters who felt the loss deeply. Fr. Matt listened and he offered prayers.

From his years as a priest and police chaplain, Fr. Sepe understood what Fr. Conley was facing in the call to the hospital crisis as the department chaplain. His support was largely nonverbal that day. “You are here for them,” he would say, “and I am here for you,” bringing his presence, peer support, and understanding of the enormity the ministry at hand.

“Police chaplains aren’t there to push a religion on police officers; their role is primarily to listen and offer emotional and spiritual support” from an article in Police One, 2015. The chaplain program has been around for over 200 years and often works in the background subliminally. The military has utilized multi-denominational chaplains to minister the troops as well. These men and women are on the front lines and 3 members of the clergy have paid the ultimate price for their calling during recent wars.

Chicago Police Chaplain Father Dan Brandt

Not everyone is religious and you might believe that a goal of a department chaplain is to advocate one denomination over another. Not the case at all. The chaplain may be a Catholic priest as in the illustrated case or he or she may be an ordained Protestant minister, Muslim Imam, or a Jewish rabbi or some other ordained member of the clergy. As a police officer, I worked with a female protestant chaplain who was very helpful with members of our community. I would not have hesitated speaking with her in confidence if I were in need. The role of the chaplain is to provide support and to listen. She was good at it too. Being present with someone who is in crisis or dying can be among the most gut wrenching of all human experience. Fr. Conley once told me he never goes anywhere without the Sacramental oils for the blessing of the sick. This allows him to be ready to offer the Sacrament should he be called to do so. He felt deeply that this anointing was his duty and one of seven sacraments priests are prepared to offer.

I have given death notifications before and have witnessed the soul wrenching-anguish experienced by those receiving these notifications. It is a horrible experience and I remember most all of these events and am still bothered by several.

For line of duty deaths, chaplain’s ask if prayer might be helpful. The sacrament of the sick is one “of strengthening, peace, and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age provided by the Catholic Priest. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God against the temptation of discouragement and anguish in the face of death” according to Michelle Arnold published in Catholic Answers in 2017.

The key to a successful departmental chaplaincy is contact — if you have enough chaplains strategically placed who are artful in “reaching out and touching someone,” two things will happen. Successful interactions will take place and the word will get around. Once calls for a chaplain begin to come directly to a chaplain from the on-scene sergeant or deputy, the chaplaincy has made its mark.  Chaplains can best serve when their role is defined and the confidentiality of their relationship to law enforcement is understood. Police One, 2015

The chaplaincy has been around for centuries in public service. It is making entry into many law enforcement agencies in earnest. Many have had chaplains riding in cruisers for decades like Fr. Dan Brandt in Chicago and his fine crew of law enforcement trained chaplains of all denominations. At some times, this has raised the issue of mixing government with religion. But there are guidelines in place. “In Lemon v. Kurtzman, the justices established the three-pronged “Lemon Test,” which, as it translates to the chaplain’s position, says he must have a secular purpose, must not excessively entangle the government with religion, and neither proselytize nor inhibit religion” said reporter Jon O’Connell in a 2017 report. The police and fire department chaplain is there for support of first responders, not as an evangelist, but as moral reminder of the “sacred nature” of their work, according to Fr. Dan Brandt, the director of the Chicago Police Ministry. In Watertown and now Scituate, Massachusetts, Fr. Matthew Conley brings forth his presence with kindness, reverence, and often good humor making the human connection with those in his purview.

Brandeis Now. Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University receives $750,000 from Henry Luce Foundation. January 23, 2021

O’Connell, J. (2017) Police chaplains take a stronger role in community policing. Scranton Times-Tribune. News article.

McDermott, M and  Cowan, J. Combating Pandemic Fatigue. Quoted in NY Times. October 2020.

Probationary lapse: Massachusetts officer killed by career criminal

Some arm chair psychologists are critical of probation officers in central Massachusetts following the shooting death of a police officer.  Critics believe that Jorge Zambrano should have been in jail rather that be free to take his murderous intentions to the street.  He had at least three arrests that were said to have resulted in resistance and ultimately violence toward police officers.  This information must have been provided to Officer Tarentino at the time of the traffic stop.  Whenever an operator is checked either on the mobile data computer in the police cruiser or by a police dispatcher flags come up indicating that the operator has a history of violence.  This is a necessary officer safety protocol. 

Unfortunately, that same level of safety awareness is not provided to judges when they are making decisions about bail or no bail holds for the like of Jorge Zambrano and thousands of other career criminals who are in and out of court like a revolving door. It is up to the office of probation and parole to provide this essential information on “dangerousness” to judges as they review charges and consider bail in the cases being brought before them each day.  Otherwise, decisions about bail cannot be made with any accuracy leaving law enforcement and the general public at great risk from those who are dangerous. We have seen this disconnect over bail among domestic violence assailants and the family members they terrorize.  Sometimes serious aggression toward a spouse including strangulation and forced sexual contact are ignored or minimized when this violence occurs within the scope of a “relationship” and yet information about violent tendencies must be provided to potential victims whenever a threat exists.  

“There are points when pre-incident indicators scream for containment of violators.  Relationship behavior should be considered – especially when relationship violence is apparent in case after case”.  Michael Sefton, 2015

Bail decisions rarely include the incidence of violent behavior – especially that which occurs toward law enforcement otherwise Officer Tarentino may be alive today.  In an article in the Boston Globe detailing the criminal history of the killer of Auburn, Massachusetts Police Officer Tarentino. Zambrano was a career criminal from what was described in several background articles. I was especially sickened by the remarks of Mr. Scola the attorney for Zambrano.  Scola verbalized his surprise that Mr. Zambrano could do something so violent toward a police officer. I am puzzled by that remark and wonder if Scola has actually passed the bar examination because anyone could see that Zambrano was on the fast track toward a violent explosion of hate.

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“He was a high risk for violence and recidivism,” said DOC spokesman Christopher M. Fallon. 

Former Boston police commissioner Edward Davis, now a private security consultant, said Monday night that judges have to consider a defendant’s “propensity for violence” at sentencing according to a Boston Globe article written in the aftermath of the killing of Ronald Tarentino, Jr..  “There are some people who are not amenable to counseling,” said Davis, whose security clients include The Boston Globe. “When you see a repeat record of violent activity, then you have to get really tough with a person like that and get them off the street.”

“There’s nothing more dangerous than that space, that moment, when a guy who is facing charges that can send him back to jail sits there behind death’s door, sizing up both his chances and the cop drawing nearer in the sideview mirror.”  Kevin Cullen Boston Globe   (5-24-16)