The attack on the United States Capitol in Washington and its aftermath have taken a toll. Unfortunately, the Jan. 6 incident will remain remote and extraordinary for most.
The incident has been politicized, sensationalized and reconstructed, but its tragic impact on those on the front lines is undeniable.
Metropolitan Police Officer Kyle DeFreytag was found dead on July 10, 2021. Officer Gunther Hashida, assigned to the Emergency Response Team of the Special Operations Division, was found dead in his residence on July 29. Metropolitan Police Officer Jeffrey Smith, a 12-year veteran of the force, and U.S. Capitol Police Officer Howard Liebengood, a 16-year veteran, also died by suicide. All four were on the front lines against the attack on Jan. 6.
There are also the deaths of Officers William Evans and Brian Sicknick. Evans died of multiple blunt force injuries to the head after being rammed by a car. He was attempting to protect the Capitol from an individual brandishing a knife after he rammed his vehicle into a police barricade. Sicknick suffered two strokes and died a day after confronting rioters on Jan. 6, when he was sprayed with a powerful chemical irritant.
Policing is by no means easy. It’s fraught with physical dangers that most of us will never encounter. Physical injuries can be overcome – broken bones, torn ligaments, cuts, abrasions, stab wounds and even gunshot wounds. Then there are the unseen psychological traumas.
The trauma that victims experience after a break and enter, a random attack, a sexual assault or the death of a loved one can change the trajectory of their lives and leave deep suspicion, angst and trauma.
Officers encounter this same trauma multiple times during their deployment. Theirs is a world fraught with physical and psychological injuries that accumulate layer upon layer with every deployment.
More than 1,008 law enforcement officers have died from suicide in the United States since 2016. The cost of the tragedy for spouses, children, families and friends is immeasurable.
Enforcement officers knowingly respond to humanity’s worst instincts. Living with the criticism of being society’s invigilator, for the failures of bad apples and for their own mistakes, is a reality that every law enforcement officer grows into. It’s an uncomfortable, stereotyped and marginalized position in many quarters of society.
Nonetheless, these men and women have a moral compass that keeps them focused on the job and their oath.
Those who give their lives in the line of duty have made the ultimate sacrifice for their communities. They know that their commitment will be honoured by colleagues, friends and families.
But each loss of a police officer is a tragic indictment of social failure.
The death of the officers following the Capitol attack is quite different. The incident was an anomaly even in the twisted and unsavoury world to which law enforcement officers are accustomed. It’s one thing to give yourself physically and psychologically to the well-being of others who know that you serve a higher purpose. It’s another to do so and be berated and betrayed by the people who you believed entrusted you with their well-being, to whom you swore your oath, the institutions you represent, and the symbols of patriotism and pride.
These officers suffered their betrayal in silence, no matter the pain inflicted on them and their families.
It’s one thing to police a protest, even a violent protest, when defending the rule of law. It’s another when you’re asked to defend something for no purpose. Every senator, congressman and political appointee who denies that the attack on the Capitol was an attack on everything American is complicit in the Jan. 6 attacks.
It’s not in the scope of a police officer to quit or cower. It’s not in the nature of loyal soldiers to fold when needed, abandon their principles or hesitate before standing in harm’s way to protect the vulnerable. Each of the officers who gave their lives stayed the course.
The four officers who testified at the hearings on the Capitol assault did so with dignity, eloquence and candour that can’t be ignored.
The hearings into the attack should be more than just another political circus. They should honour the principles of an exemplary democratic society. They should also be guided by the weight of these officers’ deaths.
Anil Anand is a research associate at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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