While growing up in Georgia, Capitol Hill was physically and ideologically distant from my life. I understood that it was tied to our government, but the scale of it was so grand that it was imperceptible. I thought the Capitol to be an unwavering institution. When I accepted my admission to the George Washington University (GW), my parents and I toured Downtown Washington, D.C., finally seeing the Capitol for the first time. As semesters passed, as more of my peers found internships in the Capitol and as I continued my studies in sociology, the Capitol’s presence solidified. It was more than the protected seat of Congress. It still felt unwavering and grand, but conversely, it also felt like my neighborhood.
As a sociology student, I also took note of how other things were changing in my life — namely, politics. Over the past several years, socio-political unrest had been bubbling under the surface as the political landscape of the United States became a culture of extremes. As the 2020 presidential election results trickled in and his loss looked increasingly imminent, former President Donald J. Trump stoked the hysterical fury and violent skepticism of his followers. In a series of tweets on Dec. 19, 2020, then-President Trump denounced President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s win and foretold the day that would change the trajectory of our country — “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” (Barry & Frenkel 2021). The protest, officially named the “Save America Rally,” would in a few hours turn into a violent insurrection on Capitol Hill, where fervent Trump supporters stormed and looted the place I had come to know. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, GW had chosen to hold classes remotely, and even though I was back home again, the Capitol as an institution no longer felt unwavering, as it did all those years ago.
As the hours-long insurrection unfolded, those of us who were not on the front lines watched the live reporting in horror. Videos showed insurrectionists breaching the police lines, attacking the police with blunt objects and chemical sprays, and waving Trump flags as they walked in the emptied House Chamber. While all members of Congress were kept safe, the riot ultimately injured about 140 officers (Schmidt & Broadwater 2021) and an unknown number of protesters. Depending on the source, the death toll is counted as five or seven. The difference is decided by the exclusion or inclusion of the suicides of U.S. Capitol Police officer Howard Liebengood and D.C Metropolitan Police officer Jeffrey Smith.
One day after the insurrection, U.S. Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick suffered two strokes and later died. Officer Sicknick’s death, along with the death of four insurrectionists, is included in every death toll. On Feb. 2 he lay in honor in the Capitol Rotunda, and government officials paid their respects. On Jan. 9, Officer Liebengood committed suicide. Six days later, Officer Smith also committed suicide. Though the White House ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff in remembrance for all three officers, only Officer Sicknick’s death was reported as a line-of-duty death. Although D.C. Chief Medical Examiner Francisco Diaz, announced on April 19 that Officer Sicknick’s death was due to “natural causes”, (Wise 2021) his death is still considered to be a direct result of the insurrection — unlike the deaths of Officer Liebengood and Officer Smith. Officer Liebengood and Officer Smith were not buried in the Arlington National Cemetery, and did not lay in honor in the Rotunda.
In a country burdened with crises — from mass shootings to COVID-19 outbreaks — our bodies are in constant survival mode. In an attempt to alleviate the daily strain we experience, our minds begin to forget the critical events that happened not too long ago. This culture of amnesia has additionally fogged the memory of January 6th, and as our news cycles have moved on, so have we.
However, the families of Officer Liebengood and Officer Smith have struggled to move on. In the midst of Officer Sicknick’s public memorialization, the widows of Officer Liebengood and Officer Smith have pushed for their husbands’ deaths to be considered deaths in the line of duty. In a Feb. 12 Washington Post article, “Two police officers died of suicide after Capitol riot. More are hurting,” Officer Liebengood’s wife, Serena Liebengood, said, “I cannot imagine the trauma Howie and his colleagues faced on January 6th or the pain they have endured afterwards. In Howie’s case, it cost him his life. His service, sacrifice and memory should be honored with official recognition that he died in the line of duty.” (Hermann 2021) David Weber, the attorney for Erin Smith and Officer Smith’s family, echoed the sentiment — “It is time the District recognized that some of the greatest risks police officers face lead to silent injuries. Why do we say that one person is honored, and another person is forgotten? They all faced the exact same circumstances” (Hermann 2021).
While both Liebengood and Smith appear to want their husbands to be ceremonially celebrated to the extent Sicknick was, the Post article noted that excluding their husbands in the line-of-duty death count may also affect employment benefits — “In many jurisdictions, including the District, rules or laws governing pensions exclude extra payouts in suicides. D.C. law says the fatality must be ‘the sole and direct’ result of an on-duty injury and one not caused by an ‘intention to bring about his own death’” (Hermann 2021). For Officer Liebengood and Officer Smith’s widows, the support they have received from the police force — financial or otherwise — may not reflect the extent of their sacrifice.
The fields of sociology and criminology have extensively studied many aspects of police organizational culture, specifically the strong sense of solidarity that unifies not only local police units, but departments across the nation. In “Police Occupational Culture: Classic Themes, Altered Times,” Loftus observed in London that “many officers reported feeling alienated from the general public and consequently developed a strong sense of togetherness with colleagues. Feelings of solidarity were further exacerbated by the anticipation of danger” (2009:12). This is evidenced in the recent shooting of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, in Minneapolis. Afterward, the Brooklyn Center Police Department flew a thin blue line flag at full-staff. For some, this flag represents police solidarity and the proclamation of “Blue Lives Matter.” Others believe this flag represents police solidarity against movements for racial justice. Either way, the result is the same — the police have a tradition of protecting each other and maintaining a unified public front.
This camaraderie is further exemplified in memorializing police deaths. In “The Commemoration of Death, Organizational Memory and Police Culture,” Sierra-Arévalo found that “the statistical rarity of death in policing does not negate that officers do die in the line of duty. Knowing that death is a rare but nonetheless real possibility, officers are socialized into the shared understanding of dangerous police work in various ways” (2019:636). When officers do die in the line of duty, their lives are often celebrated in public pageantry — ranging from memorials in police stations to lying in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. Perhaps this memorialization, reverence, and heroized police culture is what keeps new recruits coming. This context begs the question of why Officer Liebengood and Officer Smith received differential treatment from Officer Sicknick.
Death and suicide are also long-standing interests for sociologists. In Suicide: A Study in Sociology (1897), French sociologist Émile Durkheim analyzed societal data to make claims about why one might commit suicide and who is most likely to do so. (He lists soldiers as a particularly affected group, for example). Durkheim theorized that suicide was the interplay of two constructs: social integration (how well one is connected to others) and moral regulation (one’s ability to act according to society’s rules). Durkheim also identified four types of suicide: egoistic (the individual does not feel connected to society), altruistic (the individual is too connected to society), anomic (the individual no longer identifies with society’s rules), and fatalistic (the individual is oppressed by society’s rules). Though sociologists have called Durkheim’s methodology into question over the years, his conceptualization allows us to start forging connections between societal pressures, individual actions, and life or death. From a Durkheimian perspective, we might say that the suicides of Officer Liebengood and Officer Smith were anomic — the Capitol riot threw the rules the officers would have identified with into abandon, causing them to feel hopeless and lost.
In fields tangential to sociology — philosophy and political theory — another connection has been made between the state and one’s ability to live: necropolitics. In the essay Necropolitics, Cameroonian philosopher Achilles Mbembe defined the term as the ability of a sovereign state “to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not” (2003:27). Under this theory, states have sovereignty over our bodies, and the decision to live or die is not wholly ours. Mbembe’s work is more nuanced than this snapshot, but we can nonetheless see threads of it at play in many aspects of society. For example, a 2021 journal article analyzed how the connections between capitalist actors and the state created a necropolitical dynamic in which the lives of workers in U.S. pork packing plants were needlessly lost in the COVID-19 pandemic (Ken and León 2021).
In the case of Officer Liebengood’s and Officer Smith’s suicides, it would be difficult and crass to speculate fully about the circumstances leading to their deaths. However, using what we know about police culture, necropolitics, and suicide, we can begin to understand the mortality of police officers and the reaction to Liebengood and Smith’s suicides.
On a minute level, police officers are given the chance to exercise discretion. U.S. Capitol Police officers can decide how strictly they want to guard congressional grounds. Local police officers can decide whether or not it is worth their time to pull you over. However, considering Mbembe’s necropolitical analysis on the systemic level, police officers as arms of the state have little control over the course of their job, and thus, the course of their lives. Police officers are expected to make the ultimate sacrifice — losing their life to protect and serve. As an arm of the state, whatever interests the state holds, the officer must uphold, whether that entails the squashing of an insurrection or the taking of a Black person’s life. They are socialized to believe that death is always a possibility, but that it is a sacrifice worth making, in an effort to protect the interests of the state from an enemy.
Concurrently, our nation is obsessively preoccupied with the perpetrators of crime. We want to know names, demographics, and histories. As we’ve moved on from the losses of the insurrection, we’ve watched the Department of Justice and the FBI enact a months-long manhunt to identify and charge those associated with the riot. When Black Americans are murdered extrajudicially on camera, many are quick to ask what they did to make an officer shoot. In many ways, the fascination with police has less to do with the police themselves and more do with the targets of their force. When an enemy is staring down the barrel of a gun, officers are given two choices — dispose of the enemy or lose their life trying. To use Durkheim’s analysis, police officers, like soldiers, are expected to perform the ultimate form of altruism — the loss of one’s own life for the state. Police officers are not literally expected to commit suicide, but the act of being willing to die for a cause is inherently quasi-suicidal. This makes Durkheim’s theory useful. This also makes police officers disposable — revered, yet disposable.
We will never fully know what Officer Liebengood and Officer Smith felt in the days before their passing. However, after surviving the riot and after the enemy combatants were thwarted, Officer Liebengood and Officer Smith were “supposed” to make it. Instead, they took their own lives. Who was the enemy combatant in their case? Who was the perpetrator of crime that we can obsess over for months on end? Was it the insurrectionists, Trump, their inner demons? We will never be able to arrive to a suitable answer, but we can start by examining the police system itself. The hands of suicide take more officers’ lives than the hands of perpetrators (Miller 2005). Yet, performative movements like Blue Lives Matter or the Thin Blue Line fail to adequately address this fact.
Trump insurrectionists, who normally proclaim their loyalty to police, did not protect these officers. The state did not protect these officers or their families. The state did not protect the lost lives of Black and Brown people, disproportionately killed by the police. Regardless of the sense of obligation officers may feel to protect the state, the state does not feel the same. The suicides of Officer Liebengood and Officer Smith have drawn negative attention to the police organizational structures instead of the usual commemoration of bravery that follows the death of a police officer. To count the deaths of Officer Liebengood and Officer Smith as line-of-duty deaths and have them lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda would be an acknowledgment of the necropolitical forces that wear on all of us. This is something the state and the police departments are not willing to do. They are not willing to yet admit that the real unwavering enemy combatant is the organization itself.
Editor’s Note: Between the completion of this story and publication two more officers who responded to the riot committed suicide. Metropolitan Police Officer Kyle DeFreyTag passed on July 10 and Metropolitan Police Office Gunther Hashida passed on July 29.
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Wise, A. (19 April 2021). Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick died of natural causes, medical examiner rules. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/04/19/988876722/capitol-police-officer-brian-sicknick-died-of-natural-causes-medical-examiner-ru
This is excellent. Thank you.