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Senate approves bill extending benefits to families of officers who die by suicide, sending it to Biden

Widow advocates for change
Police officer's widow advocates for change after husband's Jan. 6-related suicide 09:48

Washington — The Senate on Monday approved a bill that allows the families of public safety officers who die by suicide to seek death benefits, sending the measure to President Biden's desk for his signature.

The legislation, called the Public Safety Officer Support Act, was passed by the upper chamber by unanimous consent and was part of an effort to recognize the mental toll that traumatic events — including the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — have on the law enforcement officers on the frontlines. The House cleared the bill in May with overwhelming bipartisan support, though 17 Republican lawmakers voted against it.

Crucial in pressing Congress to clear the measure was Erin Smith, whose husband, Metropolitan Police Department officer Jeffrey Smith, died by suicide in the aftermath of the Capitol assault. A 12-year veteran of the department, Jeff Smith was the target of several assaults after responding to the mob of rioters who breached the Capitol. He ended his own life nine days after the Jan. 6 attack. 

Erin Smith fought for more than a year to have his death designated as a line-of-duty death, and the District of Columbia recognized in March that the injury her husband sustained on Jan. 6 while performing his duties was the "sole and direct cause" of his death.

"I'm gratified at the bill's passage and thank the Senate for unanimously passing this bill and for forever changing the conversation on police silent injuries," she said in a statement to CBS News. "I'm calling on the White House to have a public bill signing in which all of the widows of Jan. 6 can attend to have the sacrifices of their loved ones recognized."

January 6th Hearing
From left, U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn; D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer Daniel Hodges; Erin Smith, the widow of D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer Jeffrey Smith; Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, and Michael Fanone, a former D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer, arrive for a hearing of the House Jan. 6 committee on Thursday, June 9, 2022. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.

Introduced by Reps. David Trone and Guy Reschenthaler and Sens. Tammy Duckworth and John Cornyn, the bill expands the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program to cover officers who die by suicide or become permanently disabled because of traumatic service-related experiences. 

While the program currently covers only physical injuries, the legislation would allow public safety officers to seek disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder tied to severe trauma. It also recognizes suicide as a line-of-duty death, allowing the families of first responders who take their own lives to seek death benefits.

Duckworth cheered the measure's passage Monday, writing on Twitter that it will "help ensure surviving family members of public safety officers who died by suicide are eligible to receive support their loved ones earned through a life of service."

"Next up, the president's desk!" she tweeted. 

Trone, too, celebrated the bill's passage by the Senate and said Mr. Biden's signature will ensure officers' families will get essential benefits. 

The measure was introduced in the Senate in February, more than a year after the Jan. 6 assault, during which U.S. Capitol Police officers and members of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department were confronted by a violent mob of former President Donald Trump's supporters attempting to stop Congress from tallying state electoral votes. 

Four law enforcement officers who responded to the Jan. 6 attack died by suicide within seven months of the insurrection. More than 140 officers with the Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police Department were injured in the Capitol riot, according to the U.S. Capitol Police Labor Committee.

Washington, D.C., like many jurisdictions, did not consider suicide a line-of-duty death, and Erin Smith lost her health insurance and income following her husband's death. But in March, the District of Columbia recognized Jeff Smith's death as in the line of duty. The city's Police and Firefighters Retirement and Relief Board said an injury he sustained during the Jan. 6 assault "was the sole and direct cause of his death," and as a result of the line-of-duty designation, Erin Smith could claim financial benefits and ceremonial honors for her husband.

Erin Smith now is fighting to have her husband inurned at Arlington National Cemetery, where U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who died of natural causes a day after defending the Capitol, was laid to rest in February 2021.

"I call on the president and the secretary of the Army to allow me to inurn my husband at Arlington National Cemetery so that he may rest next to U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick," she said. "There is no longer any doubt that he died a hero and in the line of duty in service to his nation."

Cornyn told CBS News in March that the Capitol attack was a "traumatic event" not only for those who were in the building, but especially for law enforcement officers who responded and were "overwhelmed" by the rioters. He said then that it was "entirely appropriate" for officers who develop mental health issues after traumatic events to be covered by the benefits program.

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