On Monday, we learned of the third, and then the fourth, death by suicide of a police officer who answered the call of duty in response to the violent attempts to overthrow our democracy on Jan. 6.
If we’re going to change the way we think about officer suicides, we need to start mandating statistical collection.
Last Thursday, Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department Officer Gunther Hashida was found dead at his home, according to a spokeswoman for his department. Hashida, who was 43, spent almost 20 years on the force and left behind a wife and three children. He had been assigned to the emergency response team of his department’s Special Operations Division, a team that found itself in the thick of the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Hours after news of Hashida’s death, MPD said the death of 26-year-old officer Kyle DeFreytag, reported July 10, was also ruled a suicide.
Two other officers who helped defend the Capitol against the terror of a violent mob, Jeffrey Smith of MPD and Howard Liebengood of the Capitol Police, died by suicide within 30 days of the riot.
After Jan. 7, when Officer Brian Sicknick died from two strokes, Washington’s chief medical examiner found that “all that transpired” during the riot “played a role” in Sicknick’s condition.
Whenever a death can be linked to the trauma of duty, it should be categorized as a line-of-duty death, as was the case in Sicknick’s death. Yet in many police departments, death by suicide is not recognized as such. The failure to recognize a suicide as a line-of-duty death can mean a loss of line-of-duty death benefits, including funeral expenses. In fact, a death by suicide may negate life insurance benefits under some policies.
Hashida’s family has started a GoFundMe campaign to help defray funeral expenses. This shouldn’t have to happen.
Acknowledging an officer’s death by suicide as work-related can provide a form of solace to a grieving family, whose members are otherwise bereft of the typical honors and gratitude bestowed upon surviving family members when their loved one is killed as the direct result of an adversary.
The law falls short of making data submissions by police agencies mandatory. And that’s a major flaw.
If we’re going to change the way we think about officer suicides, we need to start mandating statistical collection. The suicide deaths of Hashida, DeFreytag, Smith and Liebengood are stark reminders that suicide “claims more law enforcement lives than felonious killings or accidental deaths in the line of duty," as writer Tara Perine cited in her May article for Police Chief magazine.
Perine also noted that despite the plethora of data collected on all manner of law enforcement activity, she had to rely upon figures from nonprofit organizations that in turn rely on voluntary reports of officer suicide statistics by police department because there has been “no national counting of the act that takes more officers’ lives in the United States than any other.”
Perine wrote that the numbers she was able to ferret out indicate that while in 2019 suicide was the No. 10 cause of death overall in the U.S., the loosely available data on police officers indicated suicide was their leading cause of death. Perine explained that data collection is set to improve with the 2020 passage by the House and Senate of the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act, which tasks the FBI with managing this new data collection. But the law falls short of making data submissions by police agencies mandatory. That’s a major flaw.
By definition, the deaths of Hashida, DeFreytag, Smith and Liebengood constitute a “suicide cluster” or contagion deserving of analysis. If not already underway, the Capitol Police and the MPD should collaborate on a comprehensive study of the contributing factors and commonalities in each officer’s experience before, during and following the events of Jan. 6 — as well as other events or phenomena with similar impacts. This kind of study could prove beneficial in identifying underlying causes, providing preventive counseling to other officers and mitigating the chance of additional tragedies in their departments and in agencies throughout the nation.
If we can investigate the root causes of the violence on Jan. 6 so that it doesn’t happen again, we should also analyze the loss of innocent life that resulted for the same reason.
The suicides of these four officers also serve to further expose the lie that what happened inside the Capitol on Jan. 6 was largely peaceful or, as Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., claimed, like a “normal tourist visit,” even though police officers and civilians don’t die during “typical tourist” days at the Capitol. Closely related is the disgraceful response of certain disreputable media and propaganda outlets to the recent testimony of four police officers about their experiences that day. We owe it to these fallen heroes to push back hard on any attempts to downplay the sacrifices of the police officers who were injured or died as the result of the Capitol riots.
Officers Hashida and DeFreytag weren’t the first officers in the battle for Capitol Hill to die by suicide, but we owe it to their families and to all of their peers in uniform to do everything we can to make their suicides the last ones.
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.