Capitol Police in crisis: Mental health fears rise following deadly attacks

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Last week’s attack on the Capitol Police is spiking fears among lawmakers about the mental health toll 2021 has exacted on the officers asked to protect them.

Understaffed and overtaxed, the nearly 2,000-strong Capitol Police force lost three colleagues in three months and saw dozens more assaulted — violence that rivals the non-Covid death toll suffered by the police forces in entire metropolitan areas so far this year, trained on a force that covers only a few square miles. Tragedy struck again during Friday’s car attack, which killed one officer and injured another. Its aftermath is exacerbating concerns that the force is in the midst of a mental health emergency.

Indeed, three months to the day after the deadly Capitol insurrection, the Hill’s police force is reeling from trauma of body and mind: Even those who weren’t physically injured on Jan. 6 have described hand-to-hand encounters with rioters, some hurling racist epithets, others brandishing weapons to threaten them.

Members of Congress have wrestled for months over whether and how to overhaul Capitol security, with occasional partisan scuffles but mostly cross-aisle concern about safety and sufficient support for Capitol Police. The loss suffered on Friday could lend new momentum to efforts at better mental-health resources for a department that hadn’t yet found its footing after the riot.

"Having a loss like this on the heels of Jan. 6, and the losses after that, is devastating to the police department,” said Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) in an interview. “We need to make sure that they have the resources that they need and show that they have our support. We need to demonstrate it with action.”

Wexton represents the family of Officer Howard Liebengood — who died by suicide on Jan. 9 — and is supporting his family’s efforts to expand mental health resources for the Capitol Police. Liebengood’s wife, Dr. Serena Liebengood, has publicly attributed her husband’s death to the strain he was under amid round-the-clock shifts that followed the assault on the Capitol.

Wexton said she wants to create a “mental health unit” within the Capitol Police, one that would include peer-to-peer counseling for officers who might be reluctant to seek help from a non-officer.

A long list of grave problems confronts the force, where there are already 233 vacancies, and hundreds more officers are on the brink of retirement, according to its union. Capitol Police leaders are facing intense political heat for their failures on Jan. 6, with three dozen facing internal investigations for their own actions during the chaos and the department’s inspector general delivering a scathing assessment. Two officers are suing Trump for alleged incitement of the insurrection.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering a wholesale restructuring of the department as it struggles to strike a balance between security and open access to the Capitol. As if that stress on the Capitol Police wasn’t enough, there’s the global pandemic that has beaten down all Americans, but especially those in front line roles like law enforcement.

“Anytime an organization has a loss like this, it permeates across the organization,” said Linda Singh, a former Maryland National Guard commander who served on retired Lt. Gen. Russell Honore’s task force on Capitol security. “They have to still show up and do their job. And that’s tough, right? It’s not like they can just shut down, take a pause, take time off."

The car attack that killed one officer, William Evans, and wounded another, Ken Shaver, compounded the loss. On a quiet and sunny Good Friday, a driver identified as 25-year-old Noah Green allegedly rammed his vehicle into a Capitol Police checkpoint and brandished a knife. (Shaver was released from the hospital on Saturday.)

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) told reporters Monday that he hadn’t yet seen all the details from the attack but was “not sure” what could have prevented it: “I don’t know how you get to the balance of 100 percent security plus the public’s right to have access to their Capitol."

Beyond bolstering security, lawmakers are opening up about the toll the last three months have taken on officers.

"The officers who knew [Evans] are never going to be the same," Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told CNN Friday. "It has taken, I think, a toll on them emotionally.”

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who chairs the House subcommittee overseeing Capitol Police funding, said that the force’s trauma is compounded by the long shifts officers have worked since Jan. 6, leaving them with little time to see their families.

“It’s just been a lot of pressure on this police force,” Ryan told reporters Friday. He added that he has helped provide mental health resources for officers and worked with the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, which specializes in providing care for psychological trauma, including post-conflict situations.

Serena Liebengood, the widow of one of the officers lost this year, has vowed to push for legislative change that could help change the culture of mental health problems on the force.

“Two months after his passing, our family remains convinced we have a unique and important opportunity to honor Howie; to support much needed USCP reforms; and to promote positive change around mental health issues for his fellow law enforcement officers,” Serena Liebengood wrote to lawmakers last month.

Acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman has acknowledged the strain her force is under, warning PTSD and morale issues could result from Friday’s attack. She’s outlined extra help the department is offering, including 24/7 emergency support as well as counselors for personnel and their families.

Officers are also eligible for employee assistance programs at the Capitol as well as religious services, said Singh, the task force member. The department has held listening sessions and town halls for officers to talk through their experiences, she said, and is “really trying to get their force to use the available resources so that they can begin to heal,” she said.

Capitol Police union officials say the force is “rapidly [approaching] a crisis in morale and force numbers.” Honore, who led a post-Jan. 6 review of Capitol security authorized by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, found that officers used 720,000 hours of overtime in the previous fiscal year and are on pace to outstrip budgeted overtime allotments in the current year.

“Not only is this model unsustainable, it leaves the force with no ability to pull officers from the line to train at the individual, leader, or collective level or to prepare for evolving threats,” Honore’s task force found.

But in a Monday CNN interview, Honore said he disagreed with union officials’ assertion that they were struggling to meet their mission of protecting Congress and its employees.

"I think that’s an overstatement," Honore said.

A shockingly vivid portrait of the tolls that Jan. 6 exacted on officers is illustrated in charging documents against perpetrators of that attack on the Capitol.

For example, prosecutors have charged Julian Khater and George Tanios with deploying bear spray at a group of officers that included Brian Sicknick, who later died. But another victim of the attack, Officer Caroline Edwards, “reported lasting injuries underneath her eyes, including scabbing that remained on her face for weeks.”

In a lawsuit seeking damages from Trump, Officer Sidney Hemby recounted being “crushed against the doors” on the Capitol’s east front, but he was ignored as assailants “struck him with their fists and whatever they had in their hands.”

“Officer Hemby normally has a calm demeanor but has struggled to manage the emotional fallout from being relentlessly attacked. He has spoken with Employee Assistance Program counselors to talk about managing the emotional impact of being targeted and dealing with the level of aggression to which he was subjected,” according to the suit.

Fellow Capitol Police officer James Blassingame, who joined the lawsuit, described being thrown into a stone column amid a wave of attackers, after which he “struck his spine and the back of his head and was unable to move.” He also recalled rioters hurling racist expletives at him, including the N-word so many times he “lost count.”

“He is haunted by the memory of being attacked, and of the sensory impacts – the sights, sounds, smells and even tastes of the attack remain close to the surface,” the suit alleges. “He experiences guilt of being unable to help his colleagues who were simultaneously being attacked; and of surviving where other colleagues did not.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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