Short-staffed and overloaded, Capitol Police are reeling from trauma to the body and mind

Members of Congress have fought for months over whether and how to reform Capitol security, with occasional partisan fights, but mostly cross-cutting concerns about security and sufficient support for the Capitol Police. The loss suffered on Friday could give new impetus to efforts to improve mental health resources for a department that had not yet found its place after the unrest.

“Having a loss like this immediately after January 6, and the losses after, is devastating for the police department,” Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) Said in an interview. “We need to make sure they have the resources they need and show they have our support. We need to show it with action.”

Wexton represents the family of Officer Howard Liebengood, who died by suicide on January 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 the death of her husband from the stress to which he was subjected in the middle of twenty-four-hour shifts that followed the assault on the Capitol.

Wexton said he 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 someone other than an officer.

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

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

“Every time an organization suffers a loss like this, it spreads throughout 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 still have to show up and do their work. And that’s tough, right? It’s not like they can just shut down, take a break, take time off. “

The car attack that killed an officer, William Evans, and another wounded, Ken Shaver, compounded the loss. On a calm and sunny Good Friday, a driver identified as Noah Green, 25, allegedly rammed his vehicle into a Capitol Police checkpoint and brandished a knife. (Shaver was released from the hospital Saturday.) President Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (DN.Y.) announced Tuesday morning that Evans would remain in the Been to the Capitol Rotunda next week.

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

In a statement, the Capitol Police hailed the officers’ union’s push to hire and retain current officers, as well as to step up new security measures to protect the force. A spokesperson also noted an increase in mental health resources that have been offered to Capitol officials since January 6.

Law enforcement agencies across the country have offered the Capitol Police the use of their peer support programs. Those agencies include the U.S. Marshalls Service, the State Department, the Virginia State Police, various county police agencies, the Baltimore Police, and various chapters of the International Firefighters Association. In addition, the spokesperson noted that the House has added “three additional trauma-informed counselors” to support the Capitol Police, and the House Veterans Affairs Committee has assisted the department in accessing VA mobile counseling centers. .

Finally, the Capitol Police has also hired an outside organization “that specializes in trauma and psychological stress” to offer workshops to officers. “These are intended to provide skills for self-care from a trauma-informed perspective,” according to the spokesperson. An internal peer support program, like the one Wexton advocates, will be implemented later this year.

Beyond beefing up security, lawmakers are opening up on the number of victims that the agents have collected in the last three months.

“The officers who knew [Evans] they will never be the same again, “Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told CNN on Friday.” I think it has affected them emotionally. “

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

“It’s been a lot of pressure on this police force,” Ryan told reporters on Friday. He added that he has helped provide mental health resources for officers and has worked with the Center for Mind and 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 through a legislative change that could help shift the culture of mental health issues in the force.

“Two months after his passing, our family remains convinced that we have a unique and important opportunity to honor Howie; to support much-needed USCP reforms; and promoting positive change around mental health issues for her 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 that PTSD and morale problems could result from Friday’s attack. She described the extra help the department offers, which includes 24/7 emergency support, as well as counseling for staff and their families.

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

Capitol Police union leaders say the force is “rapidly [approaching] a crisis in morale and numerical strength. “Honore, who led a post-Jan. 6 of Capitol security authorized by President Nancy Pelosi, found that officers used 720,000 overtime in the previous fiscal year and are on track of exceeding budgeted overtime allotments in the current year.

“This model is not only unsustainable, it leaves the force without the ability to pull officers off the line to train at the individual, leader or collective level or to prepare for evolving threats,” the Honore task force found.

But in a CNN interview on Monday, Honore said he disagreed with union leaders’ assertion that they were fighting to fulfill their mission to protect Congress and its employees.

“I think it’s an exaggeration,” Honore said.

A strikingly vivid portrait of the tolls it imposed on officers on January 6 is illustrated in the indictment documents against the perpetrators of that attack on the Capitol.

For example, prosecutors have charged Julian Khater and George Tanios with throwing bear spray at a group of officers that included Brian Sicknick, who later died. But another victim of the attackAgent Caroline Edwards “reported long-lasting wounds under her eyes, including scabs that remained on her face for weeks.”

In a lawsuit seeking damages from Trump, Officer Sidney Hemby recounted being “smashed against the doors” on the east front of the Capitol, but was ignored when the assailants “beat him with their fists and whatever they had on. her hands”.

“Officer Hemby normally has a calm demeanor, but he has struggled to handle the emotional consequences of being attacked relentlessly. He has spoken with counselors at the Employee Assistance Program to discuss how to handle the emotional impact of being a target and deal with the level of assault he was subjected to, ”according to the lawsuit.

Capitol Police Officer James Blassingame, who joined the lawsuit, described being thrown into a stone column amid a wave of attackers, after which he “hit his spine and the back of his head. and couldn’t move. ” He also recalled that the rioters hurled racist slurs at him, including the N word so many times that he “lost count.”

“He is haunted by the memory of being attacked and the sensory impacts: the sights, sounds, smells and even the flavors of the attack remain close to the surface,” the lawsuit alleges. “He experiences the guilt of not being able to help his colleagues who were simultaneously being attacked; and to survive where other colleagues did not. “

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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