by J. David McSwane for ProPublica
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
The grieving family of a slain Capitol Police officer says he was a private man whose death shouldn’t be politicized. But now it is forced to make sense of the reality that he is a victim of political violence, his legacy forever linked to an insurrection in the U.S. Capitol.
“He spent his life trying to help other people,” the officer’s eldest brother told ProPublica. “This political climate got my brother killed.”
Brian David Sicknick, 42, died Thursday of injuries he sustained while trying to protect the Capitol from a mob of violent rioters supporting President Donald Trump who rushed the building to disrupt the certification of the presidential election.
Before the officer’s death had officially been announced late Thursday, the Sicknick family was rushing from its home in New Jersey to see him in a Washington-area hospital as word circulated on social media that a Capitol Police officer had succumbed to grave injuries.
Last they had heard, Sicknick was in critical condition on a ventilator, according to family members who spoke to ProPublica. While some news reports had said an unnamed officer was in critical condition after being bludgeoned with a fire extinguisher, family members did not have details of his injuries. They say Sicknick had texted them Wednesday night to say that while he had been pepper-sprayed, he was in good spirits. The text arrived hours after a mob’s assault on the Capitol had left more than 50 officers injured and five people dead.
“He texted me last night and said, ‘I got pepper-sprayed twice,’ and he was in good shape,” said Ken Sicknick, his brother, as the family drove toward Washington. “Apparently he collapsed in the Capitol and they resuscitated him using CPR.”
But the day after that text exchange, the family got word that Brian Sicknick had a blood clot and had had a stroke; a ventilator was keeping him alive.
“We weren’t expecting it,” his brother said.
As apparently premature news of Sicknick’s death spread in law enforcement circles, the U.S. Capitol Police Department remained silent, including no response to an early request for confirmation from ProPublica on Thursday evening. The family learned from reporter phone calls that something was wrong.
“We have not gotten any calls,” Ken Sicknick said when first contacted. Brian Sicknick was the youngest of three siblings, all boys. “We’re kind of overwhelmed right now. You guys are getting reports of his death before I even got anything.”
Nearly an hour later, the department issued a statement rebutting news reports that an officer had died. The department finally reported that Sicknick had died at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, adding that this was the result of injuries sustained during the attack the previous day.
By the time family members reached the hospital, they say, Sicknick was dead.
In separate interviews with ProPublica, family members say they are still waiting to learn exactly what happened. They described Sicknick as the kindest of the three siblings. They said he went to a technical school to study electronics but ditched it to follow his dream of becoming a police officer. They couldn’t confirm the time of death.
The family’s grief and confusion comes amid serious questions about how a secretive police department that is well-funded and highly trained at quelling violent protests and protecting members of Congress had failed to protect one of its own from an attack that had been planned out in plain sight.
In a press release, the department said: “The entire USCP Department expresses its deepest sympathies to Officer Sicknick’s family and friends on their loss, and mourns the loss of a friend and colleague.”
The Sicknick family issued its own press release Friday, urging the public and reporters to not politicize Sicknick’s death.
“Please honor Brian’s life and service and respect our privacy while we move forward in doing the same. Brian is a hero and that is what we would like people to remember,” the statement said.
Still in shock, one family member, who agreed to talk but asked not to be named, said Sicknick had sometimes expressed frustrations with his job.
“Occasionally he would mention that they were very understaffed and they worked a lot of hours,” the family member said. “And morale could be low.”
Larry Schaefer, who spent 34 years on the force before retiring last year and knew Sicknick, said Wednesday’s breach of the Capitol was unfathomable until he saw it on his TV screen.
“We handle demonstrations on a regular basis,” Schaefer said. “We’re prepared for this kind of stuff. We hold people back in a perimeter. We’re set up for mass arrests, to load buses of people away.”
He said he blames department leaders for the tragedy. Under pressure from congressional leaders, Chief Steven Sund of the Capitol Police and two other security officials have resigned.
After Sicknick struggled to find a policing job early on, his family said, in 1997 he joined the New Jersey National Guard “as a means to that end.” He was deployed to Saudi Arabia and Kyrgyzstan during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was honorably discharged in 2003, according to a Guard spokesman.
He subsequently trained to be a Capitol Police officer, graduating in 2008. The family came down to see the graduation ceremony, in “one of those big fancy buildings,” one family member said.
One of his first assignments was working the inauguration of former President Barack Obama, a moment that filled Sicknick and the family with pride.
Twelve years later, Sicknick was a member of the department’s First Responder Unit when Trump, in the final days of a presidency that fomented anger and division, held a rally that precipitated the Capitol attack.
In a press release Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said, “The violent and deadly act of insurrection targeting the Capitol, our temple of American Democracy, and its workers was a profound tragedy and stain on our nation’s history.”
“I send our deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of Officer Brian Sicknick,” Pelosi said. “The perpetrators of Officer Sicknick’s death must be brought to justice.”
After a forced hiatus from Twitter, Trump returned to his favorite platform on Friday to honor his supporters, whom he called “patriots,” and to announce he will not attend the inauguration of Joe Biden.
In a statement, Trump’s deputy press secretary Judd Deere said: “Anytime a member of law enforcement dies in the line of duty it is a solemn reminder to us all that they run toward danger to maintain peace. The President and the entire Administration extend our prayers to Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick’s family as we all grieve the loss of this American hero.”