Sen. Tammy Duckworth is introducing legislation aimed at helping families of fallen law enforcement officers qualify for benefits if the officers die by suicide after experiencing trauma as a result of their work, an issue that has taken on new urgency in the aftermath of last year’s January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
The Illinois Democrat, who will introduce the legislation for the first time in the Senate, spoke to CNN exclusively ahead of its release about what she hopes can be achieved. The bill is also intended to help officers qualify for disability benefits if they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of their job.
The issue of law enforcement officer deaths by suicide has received renewed attention over the past year after responding officers endured harrowing violence when a pro-Trump mob attacked the US Capitol. Four officers took their own lives in the aftermath of the attack.
Duckworth said she had been motivated to take action after the insurrection and that she is optimistic the legislation will be able to pass in the Senate with bipartisan support.
“I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues to say, ‘Listen, this isn’t about politics, this is just about taking care of those first responders who took care of us,’ ” she said.
Duckworth’s office told CNN that Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill.
The legislation seeks to make changes to the eligibility criteria for benefits provided by the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program, which is administered through the Department of Justice.
The program gives out cash benefits for federal, state and local law enforcement officers and other first responders who die or are disabled due to “injuries sustained in the line of duty,” according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.
Legislative text of the bill – titled the Public Safety Officer Support Act of 2022 – states that currently officers “who have died or are disabled as a result of suicide or post-traumatic stress disorder do not qualify for the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program.”
In an effort to change that, the bill would designate PTSD or acute stress disorder as an injury sustained in the line of duty for the purpose of the benefits program if the officer experienced a traumatic event as a result of their work and then received a diagnosis from a qualified medical professional or sought help, such as by calling a crisis line. The bill would also put in place a presumption of injury for officers who responded to mass casualty or mass fatality events.
If an officer dies by suicide or is permanently disabled because of PTSD, the bill would direct the benefits program to classify the death or disability as “a direct and proximate result” of the job. The directive would not apply if evidence shows that the PTSD is unrelated to the work.
Duckworth, an Iraq War combat veteran, said she has long been focused on the issue of PTSD and suicide among military veterans and believes more attention needs to be given to mental health issues among service members, as well as emergency first responders.
“Since January 6, I’ve been out talking to police officers all across Illinois,” she said. “There’s a whole culture of just, you know, shaking it off. This happened in the military too.”
“Our first responders, our police officers in particular, need to be told that it’s OK to ask for help,” she said.
During a high-profile hearing by the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack, several officers gave emotional testimony about the horrors they had experienced that day, including hand-to-hand combat with rioters, being beaten with their own equipment, getting crushed in a doorway and being the target of racial slurs.
CNN reported last year that Erin Smith, the widow of Metropolitan Police Officer Jeffrey Smith, who died by suicide days after the Capitol attack, was petitioning the Police and Firefighters’ Retirement and Relief Board in Washington to declare her husband’s suicide a line-of-duty death, so she can continue receiving health and financial benefits.
Smith wrote in The Washington Post on the one-year anniversary of the attack that her “petition for line-of-duty designation for my husband languishes.”
“I miss my husband every minute of every day. I long for his death to be recognized as in the line of duty,” she wrote. “His sacrifice deserves to be remembered and his legacy honored by having his name etched on the Law Enforcement Memorial wall.” She added, “But, for now, I continue to wait for justice.”
Duckworth said that Officer Smith’s parents are constituents and her office has spoken with his widow.
“He spent that day protecting me, keeping me safe in this building, and he ended up dying as a result of what he did that day to keep me safe, and yet was not recognized for that,” the senator said. “On that day, he fought to protect all of us.”
CNN’s Whitney Wild and Jessica Schneider contributed to this report.