Engulfed in the crush of rioters storming the Capitol, D.C. police officer Jeffrey Smith sent his wife a text that spoke to the futility and fears of his mission. "London has fallen," the 35-year-old tapped on his phone at 2:38 p.m. on Jan. 6, knowing his wife would understand he was referencing a movie by that name about a plan to assassinate world leaders attending a funeral in Britain. The text confirmed the frightening images Erin Smith was watching on live stream from the couple's home in Virginia: The Capitol had been overrun.
Six minutes after Smith sent that text, a Capitol Police officer inside the building shot and killed a woman as she climbed through a smashed window next to the House chamber.
Smith, also inside the Capitol, didn't hear the gunshot, but he did hear the frantic "shots fired" call over his police radio. He later told Erin he panicked, afraid rioters had opened fire on police, and wondered whether he would die.
Around 5:35 p.m., Smith was still fighting to defend the building when a metal pole thrown by rioters struck his helmet and face shield. At 9 p.m., he told two supervisors he was in pain from being hit by the pole, and he was sent to the Police & Fire Clinic in Northeast Washington, run by a contractor and the first step for nearly every officer injured on the job.
He checked in at the clinic at 10:15 p.m., according to records shared by his family. On his police injury form, he wrote: "Hit with flying object in face shield and helmet." He added that he "began feeling pain in my neck and face." He checked out 1:31 a.m. on Jan. 7, his status listed as "sick," though no diagnosis is noted. Erin does not know if he told the staff about any emotional issues. "He told me it was chaos," she said of the clinic. "There were so many people there."
He was put on sick leave and was sent home with pain medication.
In the days that followed, Erin said, her husband seemed in constant pain, unable to turn his head. He did not leave the house, even to walk their dog. He refused to talk to other people or watch television. She sometimes woke during the night to find him sitting up in bed or pacing.
In an interview, Contee said 16 officers injured in the riot went to the clinic Jan. 6, and he believes Smith was seen more quickly there than he would have at a hospital emergency room. Officers who were severely injured that night, including the one who suffered a heart attack, were taken directly to hospitals; others went to the clinic in the days that followed the riot.
The chief described care given to officers as "adequate" but noted, "We can always do better."
Erin has questions about her husband's care at the Police & Fire Clinic. She said he told her he was seen for only about 10 minutes when he returned Jan. 14 and was approved to return to work the following day.
She wonders whether there were indications of a serious head injury or signs of emotional distress, and she is seeking his complete medical file. Police officials would not comment on specifics of Smith's visit, citing privacy laws. Representatives for PFC Associates, which runs the clinic, did not respond to an interview request.
"He wasn't the same Jeff that left on the 6th. . . . I just tried to comfort him and let him know that I loved him," she said. "I told him I'd be there if he needed anything, that no matter what, we'll get through it. I tried to do the best I could."
Smith returned to the police clinic for a follow-up appointment Jan. 14 and was ordered back to work, a decision his wife now questions. After a sleepless night, he set off the next afternoon for an overnight shift, taking the ham-and-turkey sandwiches, trail mix and cookies Erin had packed.
On his way to the District, Smith shot himself in the head.
Police found him in his cherished Ford Mustang, which had rolled over and down an embankment along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, near a scenic overlook on the Potomac River.
He was the second police officer who had been at the riot to take his own life.
Now, families of Smith and Liebengood - who were buried in private ceremonies lacking the pageantry that accompanied Sicknick's memorial service in the Capitol Rotunda - want the deaths of their loved ones recognized as "line of duty" deaths.
The suicides have also renewed attention on another troubling and often hidden issue: Police officers die by their own hands at rates greater than people in other occupations, according to a report compiled by the Police Executive Research Forum in 2019, after at least nine New York City police officers died by suicide that year. That report said officer suicides outpace deaths of law enforcement members killed in shootings and vehicular crashes.
Even before the Capitol riot, police officers in the District were exhausted after months of sustained demonstrations for racial, social and political justice, some of which turned violent. Later, there were more violent confrontations when right-wing extremists came to rally in support of President Donald Trump.
Officers were struck with poles, dragged down stairs and sprayed with bear spray. One suffered a heart attack. Another lost a finger, D.C. police said. "Several Capitol police officers have reportedly threatened self-harm in the days following the riot," Cicilline said during the trial. "And in one case, an officer voluntarily turned in her gun because she was afraid of what might happen."
An unbearable return
Smith, a car enthusiast who grew up in Illinois moved to the D.C. area 12 years ago after graduating from college with a degree in sociology, having spotted openings on the D.C. police force.
Smith didn't talk much about the details of what he experienced during his hours at the Capitol, Erin said. She didn't press, but even from the little she learned, she thinks the images she saw on live stream did not fully capture what police experienced. Before the riot, the family's lawyer said, Smith had not been diagnosed with or exhibited signs of depression.
Erin is convinced the trauma of Jan. 6 made the thought of returning to policing unbearable for him.
"If he didn't go to work that day," Erin said, "he would still be alive."
But classifying Smith and Liebengood's deaths as "in the line of duty" could be difficult.
Experts caution that suicide is not typically due to a singular event, even a traumatic one, and precise reasons are generally rooted in a wide variety of factors that are often never fully understood.