WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — Erin Smith fought for months for death benefits after her husband, a D.C. Metropolitan police officer, died of suicide nine days after the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. In an interview with CBS News, she said she was initially skeptical that legislation would pass, having fought for over a year to have his suicide designated as a line-of-duty death in the District of Columbia.
"I tried to keep my hopes within the right space, if you will. And once it got approved last night, I was just overly thrilled," she said. "Obviously, this is going to help a lot of people. It's not just me, but others who have gone through this, as well."
After the bill passed on Monday, Erin Smith was "thrilled" that these officers and their families "will get the recognition that they're due from the federal government."
Legislation qualifying families of public safety officers who die by suicide to seek death benefits cleared the Senate on Monday, part of a larger effort to recognize the emotional impacts of traumatic events on first responders nationwide. The measure was passed in by unanimous consent.
Erin Smith's husband, Jeffrey Smith, was a 12-year veteran of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. He was the target of several attacks on Jan. 6, after responding to the mob of rioters who breached the Capitol.
"He left with that one personality and came home with a different one," Smith said. "He just didn't want to do or be around anyone. Kept to himself and was struggling to really just, you know, understand what happened that day, his injuries, and ultimately we know the end."
Like many parts of the country, Washington, D.C., where Jeff Smith served, did not consider suicide a line-of-duty death, which left Erin Smith without health insurance and income following her husband's death. In March, the District of Columbia recognized that the injury her husband sustained on Jan. 6, 2021, while performing his duties was the "sole and direct cause" of his death.
Jeff Smith was one of four law enforcement officers who responded to the Jan. 6 attack to have 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.
The bill was introduced by Reps. David Trone, Democrat of Maryland, and Guy Reschenthaler, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Sens. Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, and John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. The legislation expands the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program to provide coverage for officers who die by suicide or become permanently disabled because of traumatic service-related experiences.
Presently, the program only covers physical injuries, but the new legislation would permit public safety officers to seek disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder tied to severe trauma. Families of law enforcement and first responders who die by suicide are now entitled to seek death benefits now that suicide is recognized as a line-of-duty death.
For Erin Smith, this recognition brings a sense of "peace."
"The firefighters, EMS, police, anyone considered a first responder will, their families will, benefit from this as long as they meet one of the three criteria," she explained.
Erin Smith is now petitioning to have her husband's name added to the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C., and to see that he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, next to U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who died of natural causes a day after defending the Capitol. Sicknick was laid to rest in February 2021.
The House passed the bill in May with overwhelming bipartisan support, with just 17 Republican lawmakers voting against it.
The legislation now heads to President Biden's desk for his signature.
If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or suicidal crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).