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WASHINGTON — The death of a Washington police officer who died by suicide just days after he was assaulted during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol has been ruled a line-of-duty death, a finding that makes his widow eligible for enhanced survivor benefits.
“Based on evidence submitted by the petitioner and the Department, we find that Officer Smith sustained a personal injury on January 6, 2021, while performing his duties and that his injury was the sole and direct cause of his death,” the D.C. Police and Firefighters’ Retirement and Relief Board wrote in a letter obtained by NBC News on Wednesday.
Metropolitan Police Officer Jeffrey Smith died on Jan. 15.
Smith, according to his widow, described Jan. 6, 2021, as the worst day of his life. After her husband’s death, Erin Smith found out she had lost her medical benefits through his job while she was standing at a pharmacy counter.
Smith later said her late husband was “just not his normal self” after Jan. 6.
A former D.C. chief medical examiner said in an earlier review that there was “a direct cause and effect relationship between the line of duty work trauma on Jan. 6 and Jeffrey Smith’s death,” adding that Smith had “no prior history of depression, mental health issues or mental health treatment.”
Body camera video shows at least two assaults on Smith on Jan. 6: one inside the Capitol and another outside the building, when he was struck with a flying metal pole. The video confirmed what Erin Smith recalled her husband as having told her: that he’d been “punched in the face, hit in the head with a metal pole.”
David P. Weber, an attorney for Smith’s estate, said it’s very rare for an officer suicide to be declared a line-of-duty death.
“This is the first time where someone who has suffered a brain injury, and an emotional injury, has been acknowledged as a line-of-duty death,” Weber said. “This will impact widows, widowers, children and parents of everyday heroes who have suffered these injuries in the line of duty.”
Erin Smith filed her claim with the D.C. Police and Firefighters’ Retirement and Relief Board in August. In an interview Wednesday night, she said the board’s decision was “the start of Jeff getting the honor that he deserves.”
“He was a hero that day, we knew it all along. Now the city has stated his death was a line-of-duty death. He deserves the recognition that every other officer receives,” she said.
With the designation, Smith will receive full survival benefits.
“At the end of the day, a lot of the push for this was to help the next person so they don’t have to fight for eight months to get recognition for their loved one,” Smith said. “Your heart health is just as important as your brain health.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who has fought for survivor benefits for Erin Smith, praised the board’s decision.
“I’m so relieved that following our push for it, Virginian Officer Jeffrey Smith will receive the official officer’s line-of-duty death designation, entitling his survivors to full benefits,” Kaine said in a statement. “We will forever be grateful for his service to protect our Capitol.”
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., said there was “no question” that Smith should get full memorial honors and that it was important to remove the stigma attached to suicide.
“Officer Jeffrey Smith would still be alive today if he hadn’t risked his life to defend all of us at the U.S. Capitol and our democracy itself on January 6th. His heroism led to his death, which absolutely occurred in the line of duty, and the official acknowledgement of that fact is an important moment that I hope will bring a measure of solace to his family and friends,” Beyer said in a statement.
“I am particularly thinking of Erin Smith tonight, who has shown remarkable tenacity and courage through the terrible ordeal that began with the loss of her husband and lasted through the long fight to win this recognition,” Beyer added.
Smith was one of at least four officers who died by suicide in the months after they responded to the attack on the Capitol. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick died of natural causes a day after the Jan. 6 riot, when he was attacked with chemical spray.
Julie Tsirkin contributed.
Source: This post first appeared on NBC News