WASHINGTON — The death of a U.S. Capitol Police Officer who took his own life days after responding to the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol Building was determined Monday to be in the line of duty, according to a statement from the officer’s family.
U.S. Capitol Police Officer Howard “Howie” Liebengood died Jan. 9, 2021, by suicide. The 51-year-old officer had been with the department since April 2005 and was assigned to the Senate Division at the time of his death. His father, Howard Liebengood Sr., had served as the Senate sergeant-at-arms from 1981 to 1983.
Liebengood was one of at least four officers who died by suicide after responding to the Capitol on Jan. 6. In May 2021, an appropriations bill for security improvements on the Capitol campus included more than $4 million for wellness and trauma support for officers and renamed the Capitol Police wellness program the Howard C. “Howie” Liebengood Center for Wellness.
Liebengood’s family and members of Congress had pressed for Liebengood to be treated as a line-of-duty death. During a committee hearing in late February, Virginia Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D), who represents the district where Liebengood lived, repeatedly pressed then-acting USCP Chief Yogananda Pittman on the classification. At the time, Pittman declined to answer affirmatively, saying his death was still under investigation.
On Monday, Liebengood’s family released a statement saying they’d been notified the Justice Department had determined his death would be considered in the line of duty under the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) program. The decision means Liebengood’s family will be eligible for the same financial benefits as other officers killed or wounded in the line of duty. Liebengood’s death is the first claim awarded under the new Public Safety Officer Support Act, which was signed into law in August by President Joe Biden.
“Anyone who knew Howie knew he was kind-hearted and fiercely loyal. 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,” the Liebengood family said in a statement Monday.
Virginia Senator Tim Kaine (D), who co-sponsored the Public Safety Officer Support Act which allows families of officers who die by trauma-linked suicide to apply for death benefits, also released a statement Monday applauding the DOJ’s decision.
“Officer Howie Liebengood was often one of the very first people I saw at the Capitol every day and was well known to my entire staff,” Kaine said. “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. His death in the wake of the horrors of the January 6 insurrection was a heartbreaking loss for his family and for every American who believes in the promise of our democratic institutions. We have a responsibility to carry with us his spirit of service and to give his family the recognition and unwavering support they deserve. That’s why I urged the Department of Justice to approve Public Safety Officers’ Benefits for his wife Serena. I am gratified she’s getting those much-deserved benefits today.”
In addition to Liebengood, at least three other officers who responded to the Capitol on Jan. 6 died by suicide shortly afterward: Officer Kyle DeFreytag, Officer Jeffrey Smith and Officer Gunther Hashida. All three were members of the DC Police Department. A fifth officer, U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, died on Jan. 7 of natural causes after collapsing at the Capitol the day earlier. In March, the D.C. Police and Firefighters’ Retirement and Relief Board determined Smith’s death was due to sustaining a “personal injury on January 6, 2021, while performing his duties” and that this injury was the sole and direct cause of his death.
If you or someone you know are struggling with suicidal thoughts, help is available 24/7 through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline via the toll-free hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text TALK to 741741. In Washington, D.C., you can also reach the Department of Behavioral Health’s Access HelpLine at 1-888-7WE-HELP or 1-888-793-4357.