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Capitol Police in Crisis: Mental Health Fears Rise Following Deadly Attacks

Members of Congress struggled for months over whether and how to reform Capitol security, with occasional partisan scuffles but mostly intersecting concerns about security and sufficient support for Capitol Police. Friday’s loss could give new impetus to efforts to improve mental health resources for a department that had yet to find its footing after the riot.

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

Wexton represents the family of Constable Howard Liebengood – who died by suicide on January 9 – and supports his family’s efforts to expand the mental health resources of the Capitol Police. Liebengood’s wife, Dr Serena Liebengood, has publicly attributed her husband’s death from the strain he was under in the midst of the 24-hour shifts that followed the assault on Capitol Hill.

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

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

Meanwhile, Congress is considering a comprehensive restructuring of the department as it struggles to strike a balance between security and open access to the Capitol. As if this stress on the Capitol Police was not enough, there is the global pandemic that has defeated all Americans, but especially those who play a front line role like law enforcement.

“Whenever an organization suffers a loss like this, it permeates the entire organization,” said Linda Singh, a former commander of the Maryland National Guard who served on the Lt. Gen. task force at the Russell Honoré retreat on Capitol Security. “They still have to show up and do their job. And it’s difficult, isn’t it? It’s not like they can just stop, take a break, take time off. “

The car attack that killed an officer, William Evans, and injured another, 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 on Saturday.)

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) Told reporters on Monday that he had yet to see full details of the attack, but was “not sure” of what might have prevented it: “I don’t know how you get there. the rest of 100% security plus the public’s right to have access to their Capitol.”

Beyond strengthening security, lawmakers are opening up on the record of the last three months on the officers.

“The officers who knew [Evans] will never be the same, “Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) representative told CNN on Friday.” It took them, I think, a heavy emotional toll. “

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

“There was just a lot of pressure on this police force,” Ryan told reporters on Friday. He added that he had helped provide mental health resources to officers and worked with the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, which specializes in dealing with 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 issues within 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 to promote positive change around mental health issues for her fellow law enforcement officers, ”Serena Liebengood wrote to lawmakers. last month.

Acting Capitol Building Police Chief Yogananda Pittman acknowledged the strain on his forces, warning that PTSD and morale issues could result from Friday’s attack. She described the additional help the department offers, including 24/7 emergency support, as well as counselors for staff and their families.

Agents are also eligible for Capitol Hill employee assistance programs as well as religious services, task force member Singh said. The ministry has held listening sessions and town halls for officers to talk about their experiences, she said, and “really tries to get their forces to use available resources so that they can start to heal, ”she said.

Capitol Police union officials say the force is “quickly [approaching] a morale and workforce crisis. Honore, who led a post-Jan. 6 Capitol Security Review authorized by President Nancy Pelosi, found that officers used 720,000 overtime in the previous fiscal year and are on track to exceed budgeted overtime allocations for the year in Classes.

“Not only is this model unsustainable, but it does not allow the force to withdraw officers from the line to train at the individual, leadership or collective level or to prepare for evolving threats,” he said. noted Honoré’s working group.

But in an interview with CNN on Monday, Honoré said he disagreed with union officials’ assertion that they are struggling to fulfill their mission of protecting Congress and its employees.

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

A shocking and startling portrait of the tolls that Jan. 6 imposed on officers is illustrated in impeachment documents against the perpetrators of this attack on the Capitol.

For example, prosecutors accused Julian Khater and George Tanios of deploying bear spray on a group of officers including Brian Sicknick, who later died. But another victim of the attack, Constable Caroline Edwards, “reported lasting injuries under her eyes, including scabs that remained on her face for weeks.”

In a lawsuit seeking damages from Trump, Agent Sidney Hemby said he was “crushed against the gates” on the eastern front of the Capitol, but was ignored as the attackers “hit him with their fists and whatever they had in their hands. ”

“Officer Hemby is normally calm demeanor, but has struggled to deal with the emotional fallout from the relentless attacks. He spoke with counselors from the Employee Assistance Program to talk about dealing with the emotional impact of being targeted and the level of aggression he was subjected to, ”according to the lawsuit.

James Blassingame, another Capitol Police officer, who joined the trial, described being thrown into a stone column amid a wave of attackers, after which he “hit his column. spinal cord and the back of the head and was unable to move ”. He also recalled rioters hurling racist curses at him, including the N word so many times that he “lost count”.

“He is haunted by the memory of the attack and the sensory impacts – the sights, sounds, smells and even the tastes of the attack remain close to the surface,” the lawsuit alleges. “He feels guilty for not being able to help his colleagues who were simultaneously attacked; and survive where other colleagues could not. “

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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