Dr. Serena Liebengood, the widow of US Capitol Police Officer Howie Liebengood, who died by suicide after serving on the front lines during the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, is asking that his death be considered “in the line of duty.”
In a letter obtained by CNN to Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a Democrat from Virginia who represents the Liebengoods, Serena Liebengood thanked Wexton for pressing acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman over the classification of her husband’s death during a recent hearing on Capitol Hill.
“Her (Pittman’s) reluctance to designate his January 9 suicide as being ‘in the line of duty’ is a wrong which must be rectified,” Liebengood writes in the letter to Wexton.
During the hearing in February, Wexton asked Pittman why the death of Officer Liebengood was not considered to be in the line of duty and Pittman deflected the question, saying that it was still under investigation. In an interview with CNN, Wexton said that she has had subsequent conversations with Capitol Police leaders, where they have said that while the investigation is ongoing, it is unlikely the death will receive the “in the line of duty” designation. If his death were to be designated as such, his family would be entitled to a host of benefits they currently do not have access to.
“That’s not what this is about,” Wexton said of the loss of access to the benefits. “This is more about the principle of their understanding that PTSD and the tragedy that went along with the events of January 6 is real. And that the stigma that follows police officers around after this, and then the reluctance to seek help, is also real.”
In a statement to CNN, Pittman said they will always “appreciate Howie’s dedication to our Department and Congress” and that “The Department has provided Howie’s family with its much-deserved death gratuity payment.”
“While I want to support the Liebengood family to the maximum extent possible, Line of Duty Death declarations are given to officers who die while carrying out official law enforcement responsibilities,” Pittman said in the statement. “Even the deaths of the law enforcement officers who tragically took their own lives after the terrorist attack on September 11th were not considered Line of Duty Deaths.”
Pittman also said that “the Department has always made mental health resources available to our workforce and significantly increased those resources in size and scope after January 6th.”
“The USCP family continues to mourn the tragic and untimely death of Officer Howie Liebengood, whose family and friends I have prayed with and consoled,” Pittman said.
In addition to Liebengood, Metropolitan Police Department Officer Jeffery Smith died by suicide in the days after the insurrection. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick also lost his life as a result of injuries suffered on the day. Officials say as many as 140 officers sustained injuries on January 6.
Liebengood went into detail in the letter about her husband’s struggles during the week of the insurrection. She describes his incredible workload and the toll it was taking on him both physically and mentally.
“After assisting riot control at the Capitol on January 6th, USCP scheduled Howie to work lengthy shifts in the immediate days following. He was home for very few hours over the course of four days,” she writes. “Although he was severely sleep-deprived, he remained on duty- as he was directed- practically around the clock from January 6th through the 9th. On the evening of the 9th, he took his life at our home.”
Howie Liebengood was a 15-year veteran of the Capitol Police force and his father, Howard S. Liebengood, once served as the Senate sergeant-at-arms. His widow made note of his family’s deep connection to the US Capitol and its protection. Liebengood also once served as a Senate page. His widow argued that his death, and the deaths of others who lost their lives in connection to the insurrection, should lead to serious reforms of the Capitol security situation.
“The Liebengood family wants Howie’s death to not have been in vain,” the letter reads. “Recognition of the cause of his death, much like the critical examination of the riot itself, will remain central to how we make right those tragedies and help avoid their repetition.”
Liebengood asked Wexton to share the letter with congressional colleagues in an effort to push for revisions to the system and to help get her husband’s death classification changed. In an interview with CNN, Wexton said she hopes other members of Congress take note of Liebengood’s story and enact the necessary changes.
“Howie would still be with us and them, but for the events of January 6,” Wexton said. “The need is lacking of mental health services for Capitol Police officers around this event and even before.”
In a statement to CNN, the Liebengood family said they are hoping that by coming forward they can push for the change they believe is necessary: “Howie dedicated 15 years of his life to protecting these elected officials, as well as millions of visitors at the U.S. Capitol each year. Officials on both sides of the aisle witnessed firsthand the catastrophic events of January 6. We are certain they recognize that this tragedy led to Howie’s death.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.