The Capitol Police Department is defending its decision to put out a January press release that officer Brian Sicknick succumbed to injuries sustained while clashing with Capitol rioters, saying they believed it at the time, despite a medical examiner’s report last month saying he died of natural causes.
Capitol Police announced Sicknick, 42, died on Jan. 7, one day after rioters broke into the Capitol as lawmakers counted electoral votes to affirm President Joe Biden‘s victory over former President Donald Trump.
In its statement, the department said Sicknick “was injured while physically engaging with protesters” and that he “was taken to a local hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.” The New York Times reported on Jan. 8, citing “two law enforcement officials,” that the 13-year police veteran was beaten with a fire extinguisher and died hours later.
Last month, Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, demanded to know why the police claimed Sicknick suffered mortal injuries while clashing with protesters during the Capitol riot in light of the medical examiner's ruling that Sicknick died from a stroke. Johnson sent an April letter to acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman, contending the determination from Chief Medical Officer Francisco Diaz “raises more questions about what USCP knew and what actions USCP took to confirm certain facts regarding Officer Sicknick’s death before it released its Jan. 7 statement.”
Last week, Johnson revealed he had gotten a response back from Thomas DiBiase, the general counsel for the Capitol Police, and the senator pushed for more answers.
“As you know, this matter is under criminal investigation by the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department and the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia,” DiBiase wrote to Johnson on May 6. “In addition, there are currently pending criminal charges against two defendants for assaulting Officer Sicknick. Therefore, we are limited in what our Department can provide in terms of information.”
“We can assure you, however, that when we released our press statement on January 7th, we believed that Officer Sicknick had died from injuries sustained while on-duty after physically engaging with protestors.”
The medical examiner’s office told the Washington Examiner that Sicknick’s “cause of death” was “acute brainstem and cerebellar infarcts due to acute basilar artery thrombosis” (a stroke), and the “manner of death” was “natural.” The medical examiner said Sicknick was sprayed with a chemical substance around 2:20 p.m. on Jan. 6, collapsed at the Capitol around 10 p.m., and was transported by emergency services to a local hospital. He died around 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 7. Diaz told the Washington Post that Sicknick died after suffering two strokes, did not suffer an allergic reaction to chemical irritants, and bore no evidence of either external or internal injuries, but contended that “all that transpired played a role in his condition.“
Although Julian Elie Khater and George Pierre Tanios were charged in March with coordinating to assault Sicknick and two other officers with a chemical spray, they were not accused of killing Sicknick.
The Capitol Police’s general counsel added that it took the medical examiner “several months of extensive forensic testing and investigation to reach its medical conclusion, supported by an autopsy report, while our press release was issued in the immediate aftermath of the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol by violent insurrectionists” and contended that “indeed” the medical examiner’s conclusion “does not mean that officer Sicknick was not assaulted nor that the events at the Capitol did not contribute to his death.” DiBiase also said that Capitol Police “never put out a press release nor made a statement that Officer Sicknick had been assaulted by a fire extinguisher.”
Johnson wrote back to Pittman last Thursday about the “incomplete response” from DiBiase, which “failed to address the majority of the questions in my letter.” The Republican senator argued that the criminal investigation “is not a legitimate justification for refusing to respond to questions that do not appear to be materially related to the criminal case against the two defendants charged with assaulting Officer Sicknick.” Johnson said, “Therefore, without information from your office regarding the specific questions you are unable to answer, I write to reiterate my questions and information requests” and said that he expected “a complete response to each question.”
The Wisconsin Republican also asked Capitol Police to provide a “full timeline” and a description of Sicknick’s work activities from Jan. 6 until the time of his death, including when and where the police officer collapsed, requested a description of what information Capitol Police provided to Sicknick’s family about his death, and told Capitol Police to explain what information it had provided to the FBI.
Johnson previously wrote that “it remains unclear why the USCP released a statement regarding Officer Sicknick’s cause of death months before the medical examiner made an official determination.”
In February, the New York Times updated its report about the Capitol riot, headlined “Capitol Police Officer Dies From Injuries in Pro-Trump Rampage.” It now says that “law enforcement officials initially said Mr. Sicknick was struck with a fire extinguisher, but weeks later, police sources and investigators were at odds over whether he was hit.”
A Democratic pretrial impeachment memo had already cited the New York Times's reporting, saying, “The insurrectionists killed a Capitol Police officer by striking him in the head with a fire extinguisher.”
Johnson had asked whether House impeachment managers contacted Capitol Police to confirm how Sicknick had died and asked “if USCP became aware before or during the February 2021 Senate impeachment trial that Officer Sicknick was not struck with a fire extinguisher or did not die from related injuries, did USCP contact, or attempt to contact, the House impeachment managers to address the claim.” DiBiase said he was “not aware” of any contact between House impeachment managers and Capitol Police about that.
Johnson’s letter also noted that on Feb. 26, “absent any official rulings from the medical examiner’s office and following unsupported claims regarding Officer Sicknick’s cause of death,” the Capitol Police stated that “Officer Sicknick’s family has asked for privacy during this difficult time and that the spreading of misinformation stop regarding the cause of his death.”
“What did the USCP consider to be misinformation regarding Officer Sicknick’s death?” Jonson asked in his letter, adding, “What actions, if any, did the USCP take to address misinformation regarding Officer Sicknick’s death?”
Johnson also asked the Capitol Police chief if she had directed the Office of Professional Responsibility or the Office of Inspector General to investigate how the Jan. 7 press release was developed and approved and whether the Capitol Police are investigating whether its members “provided inaccurate information” to the New York Times.
The Capitol Police released a statement after the medical examiner’s findings were made public last month, saying that “this does not change the fact Officer Sicknick died in the Line of Duty.”
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