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

What are protective factors in law enforcement: Ballistic vests notwithstanding

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Officer wearing ballistic vest

A new paper was just published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology that has to do with high rates of depression in some police officers. It is written by Emily Jenkins (2019) who is a biostatistician and epidemiologist at the National Institute for Safety and Occupational Health in Morgantown, WV.  Her co-authors include John Violante who himself is an epidemiologist and former New York State Trooper now researching police officer health and suicide.  Basically, the authors say there are factors in personality and behavior that serve to reduce the new incidence of depression in LEO’s and to reduce the associated physical debility that may be co-occurring in cases where a history of depression was previously reported. One might see this protection as a ballistic vest for emotional health and career hardiness. High resilience leads to career success, satisfaction, and reduced likelihood of developing depression. Resilience refers to adaptability and flexibility in dealing with stressful situations.  Resilience officers are able to tolerate highly stressful situations without becoming debilitated by stress and negativity.

I find the study interesting but it doesn’t connect with the troops in the field. For example, one feature listed as helpful against depression is “active coping” that includes things like agreeableness, conscientiousness, and having social support. Understanding protective factors leads to understanding who is most at risk of developing depression.  The goal is to reduce depression among LEO’s and lessen the long-term impact of depression once it has been diagnosed.  The paper cites links to depression and poor coping skills to personality features such a high neuroticism and low conscientiousness and low extraversion.  These variables may lead to higher risk for substance abuse, reduced hardiness, and a host of physical signs and symptoms.  These personality features are the biomarkers of chronic stress and its harsh consequences. They make sense to me but I rarely encounter a police officer, or anyone else for that matter that actively thinks about the core set of personality features that have defined them throughout life.

Officers across the country are being trained in peer support and crisis intervention training. At the Direct Decision Institute we are providing a variety of training programs designed for this same issue – increased officer hardiness and reduced risk of burnout, depression, and suicide. These are intuitive concepts and when talking with active duty LEO’s, I feel like the rank and file understand the words they hear but rarely will an officer offer up a personal example of times he or she may have had behavioral health issues. I have heard officers become very emotional when telling the stories of friends who have suffered with mental illness but rarely a personal story.

Two recent exceptions to this notion are Sergeant Mark DiBona, a recently retired sheriff’s department officer from Florida and Joe Smarro, an officer from Texas who is recently featured in an outstanding documentary entitled Ernie and Joe released in May, 2019 with great acclaim.  It should not be this way and there is still great secrecy behind the veil of police service.  It takes great courage to share personal struggles and one’s private experience.  Police officers are most uncomfortable with this. Officers who are signing up for CIT and peer support courses are carefully chosen and may be more open to personal self-disclosure exhibiting greater positive coping skills, hardiness, extroversion and emotional resilience.

In order to reduce stigma associated with law enforcement behavioral health issues all members of the police service need greater self-awareness, openness to self-disclosure, and understanding of the effects of repeated exposure to violence and its broad ranging vicissitudes. This is nothing new and is being taught in academy training. Police psychologists who provide pre-employment screening should analyze the test data carefully and avoid selecting men and women who are most at risk of developing depression and who are outgoing, confident, and emotionally sturdy.