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Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick died Jan. 7 after he was injured “while physically engaging” with rioters at the U.S. Capitol, according to a Capitol Police press release. But the cause of his death remains under investigation.
An early report from the New York Times said Sicknick was struck during the riot with a fire extinguisher. The Times recently revised that report, prompting criticism.
CNN reported that investigators are considering whether a chemical irritant like pepper or bear spray played a role. On Jan. 8, Sicknick’s brother told ProPublica that Sicknick had texted about being pepper sprayed. ProPublica’s report also mentioned a stroke.
Sicknick’s mother recently said she thinks he suffered a stroke, the Daily Mail reported.
Four people died Jan. 6 as supporters of former President Donald Trump violently stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the election, and one Capitol Police officer died the next day.
Details quickly emerged about the four Trump supporters who died the day of the riot. One man, Kevin Greeson, died from a heart attack. Another, Benjamin Philips, suffered a stroke.
Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran, was fatally shot by an officer outside the House chambers. Rosanne Boyland was pinned to the ground and trampled as fellow rioters fought through a police line outside. The circumstances surrounding their deaths were captured on video.
But what caused the death of the Capitol Police officer, Brian Sicknick, is not yet clear. The circumstances are still being investigated by the Capitol Police, the Metropolitan Police Department and federal agencies, which haven’t given out details.
Adding to the mystery: Early news reports that said Sicknick was struck with a fire extinguisher during the attack have been challenged by other reporting suggesting that wasn’t the case.
Some of those more recent reports have indicated that chemical irritants may have played a role. Sicknick’s brother told ProPublica shortly after the riot that he had heard from Sicknick about pepper spray, and that the family was told he had a blood clot and a stroke.
Some conservative activists have seized on the changing and differing news accounts to accuse the media of exaggerating what happened to Sicknick.
About 140 law enforcement officers at the scene Jan. 6 suffered bruises, lacerations, concussions and other injuries in the attack on the Capitol. Two officers, Jeffery Smith and Howard Liebengood, have since died by suicide.
The Capitol Police announced Sicknick’s death in a Jan. 7 press release, writing that the officer died at roughly 9:30 p.m. "due to injuries sustained while on-duty." Sicknick, 42, was injured Jan. 6 "while physically engaging with protesters," the press release said. He collapsed after he returned to his division office and was taken to a local hospital, where he died.
Weeks later, little more is known about Sicknick’s death. The Capitol Police told PolitiFact that the medical examiner’s report is not yet complete. The D.C. police and the Justice Department said no additional information was available, citing the pending investigation.
That’s left news organizations to try to fill in the gaps, and to sort through conflicting reports.
On Jan. 8, the day after Sicknick died, the New York Times reported that he was struck with a fire extinguisher, citing two unnamed law enforcement officials as sources.
WUSA9, a local TV station, reported similar information, and that version of events took off on social media. Facebook posts linking a fire extinguisher to Sicknick’s death received more than a million interactions in roughly three weeks time, according to CrowdTangle.
News anchors and talk show hosts, including CNN’s Anderson Cooper and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, repeated the story on air, according to TVEyes, a media monitoring service.
"The insurrectionists killed a Capitol Police officer by striking him in the head with a fire extinguisher," House Democrats wrote in a trial memorandum ahead of Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, citing the New York Times’ Jan. 8 report.
But more recent reports have suggested that chemical irritants may have played a role.
CNN reported Feb. 2 that medical examiners did not find signs that Sicknick had sustained any blunt force trauma. Also citing an unnamed law enforcement official, CNN said investigators were struggling to build a case surrounding his death and were considering whether Sicknick became ill after interacting with a chemical irritant like pepper or bear spray.
CNN described that as a "leading theory" in a subsequent report Feb. 10, noting that police audio has shown officers screaming about rioters spraying them with bear spray.
That lines up with what Ken Sicknick, the officer’s brother, told ProPublica for a Jan. 8 report. Ken Sicknick said his brother texted him the night of the riot that he was in "good shape" but had been pepper sprayed twice. But on Jan. 7, Ken Sicknick and the rest of the family were informed that Brian Sicknick had experienced a blood clot and a stroke, the report said.
Charles Sicknick, the officer’s father, told Reuters his son was pepper sprayed and hit in the head, the outlet reported Jan. 9. "He ended up with a clot on the brain," his father said.
On Feb. 22, the Daily Mail reported that Gladys Sicknick, the officer’s mother, had denied that Brian Sicknick was struck in the head. "He wasn’t hit on the head no. We think he had a stroke, but we don’t know anything for sure," she said, according to the Daily Mail.
More than a month after its Jan. 8 article, but before the Daily Mail’s report, the New York Times attached an update to its report about the fire extinguisher: "New information has emerged … that questions the initial cause of his death provided by officials close to the Capitol Police."
"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," the Times wrote. "Medical experts have said he did not die of blunt force trauma, according to one law enforcement official."
The Times’ correction prompted social media posts, op-eds and blog posts accusing the media of lying about the incident to exaggerate the violence against law enforcement.
"No police officer was ever beaten to death with a fire extinguisher," conservative activist Candace Owens wrote on Facebook, in reference to the early New York Times report.
Her viral Feb. 17 post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
Glenn Greenwald, the co-founding editor of the Intercept, blasted the Times over its report on a fire extinguisher attack. And Fox News host Tucker Carlson devoted several minutes to the revised account on his show Feb. 10.
Official sources have remained quiet, with no suspects or arrests announced as of this writing.
Various searches on Twitter, Feb. 18, 2021
Various searches on CrowdTangle, Feb. 18, 2021
Various searches on TVEyes, Feb. 18, 2021
Glenn Greenwald on Substack, "The False and Exaggerated Claims Still Being Spread About the Capitol Riot," (archived), Feb. 16, 2021
The Daily Mail, "EXCLUSIVE: Mother of hero cop Brian Sicknick believes her son died of a fatal stroke following Capitol riot but family STILL do not have answers they need despite politicians rushing to judgment that he was killed by a blow to his head," Feb. 22, 2021
Snopes, "Did U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick Die After Hit With a Fire Extinguisher?" Feb. 16, 2021
The New York Times, "Officers’ Injuries, Including Concussions, Show Scope of Violence at Capitol Riot," Feb. 11, 2021
U.S. House of Representatives, "Trial Memorandum of the United States House of Representatives in the Impeachment Trial of President Donald J. Trump," Jan. 28, 2021
U.S. Justice Department, "Press Conference," Jan. 26, 2021
Reuters, "U.S. Capitol police officer who died after violent assault 'loved his job,'" Jan. 9, 2021
The New York Times, "Capitol Police Officer Dies From Injuries in Pro-Trump Rampage," Jan. 8, 2021
The New York Times, "He Dreamed of Being a Police Officer, Then Was Killed by a Pro-Trump Mob," Jan. 8, 2021
WUSA9, "US Capitol Police officer dies after being injured during Capitol riots," Jan. 7, 2021
U.S. Capitol Police, "Loss of USCP Officer Brian D. Sicknick," Jan. 7, 2021
PolitiFact, "Newsmax host falsely claims ‘only one person died’ at Capitol Jan. 6," Feb. 9, 2021
Statement from the U.S. Capitol Police, Feb. 18, 2021
Statement from the U.S. Justice Department, Feb. 18, 2021
Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department, Feb. 18, 2021