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Can suicide be ‘in the line of duty’? Police officer’s widow, lawmakers hope to change the rules. – Twin Cities

Katie Slifko at home in Farmington, Sunday, April 10, 2022. Her husband Cory Slifko, a South St. Paul police officer, died by suicide in 2019 after being diagnosed by multiple doctors with post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his work. Proposals in Congress and the Minnesota Capitol seek to change the suicide exclusion for people like the Slifkos by re-defining suicide by officers diagnosed with PTSD as no different than if they were gunned down by the hand of another — or if they suffered a heart attack or stroke from job-related stress. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

When Cory Slifko died in 2019, Katie Slifko lost her husband and the father of their two children and instantly became a member of a dreaded group: widow of fallen officer.

Except not quite.

South St. Paul police officer Cory Slifko’s death is not recognized as in the line of duty, so many of the honors and benefits afforded surviving spouses don’t go to Katie, or their two children.

That’s because Cory Slifko died by suicide.

In both federal and state statutes and rules, if an officer causes their own death, certain benefits, including some lump-sum payments and health insurance for surviving children, are excluded.

“There’s a general stigma behind it and how it’s treated,” Katie Slifko said in a recent interview. “He’s not given the honor of a work-related death. It makes me feel like his years of service aren’t recognized. All those years where we sacrificed with him, when he worked late, and when he missed family occasions, things with the kids.”

Katie has no doubt that even though Slifko died not in a shootout, but alone in his bedroom, the job killed him. He had been diagnosed by multiple doctors with post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his work as a cop.

Proposals in Congress and the Minnesota Capitol seek to change the suicide exclusion for people like the Slifkos by redefining suicide by officers diagnosed with PTSD as no different than if they were gunned down by the hand of another — or if they suffered a heart attack or stroke from job-related stress.

The bipartisan bills signify a national change in sensibilities as the public becomes increasingly aware of the trauma officers and first responders face, whether from grappling against a riotous mob, or performing the day-in, day-out duties that include frequent threats of violence and exposure to gruesome scenes not easily forgotten when the shift ends.

‘IN THE LINE OF DUTY’

Following widespread attention of suicides by soldiers returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military now classifies an estimated 90 percent of suicides as line-of-duty deaths. But that’s not the case for local peace officers and other first responders because laws and regulations affecting their deaths haven’t changed, and across the nation, those rules specifically exclude suicides from line-of-duty deaths.

“If you’re a soldier, you could come back from one deployment and have PTSD, but if you’re a career law enforcement officer, it could be a single incident, or it could be all that you see over the course of your career,” said state Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville.

Duckworth is a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard whose deployments included serving in Kuwait during the Iraq war, as well as during the riots following the murder of George Floyd and being stationed at the Brooklyn Center Police Department after the police killing of Daunte Wright. Duckworth said he’s known veterans who have suffered from PTSD and died by suicide, and he’s the lead sponsor on a bill in the state Senate to explicitly include suicides by public safety officers as line-of-duty deaths if a mental health provider has diagnosed PTSD from work.

A bill in Congress would similarly change federal law, creating a presumption that a public safety officer suffering from PTSD who dies by suicide is killed in the line of duty. That bill also would make officers diagnosed with PTSD eligible for permanent disability, just like if they had on-the-job physical injuries.

“PTSD can be just as debilitating as physical injuries,” said US Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., who is supporting the bill in the US House. ,This is a recognition that certain jobs in certain careers have a tough mental health aspect to them. It’s also about a woman and her children who have gone through one of the worst experiences imaginable, and they’ve come out on the other side without the benefits that Cory earned in 20 years of service.”

SGT. CORY SLIFKO

There’s a stereotype that cops don’t talk about work when they get home. That wasn’t the case for Cory Slifko, said Katie, who began dating Cory when she was still a teen. Ultimately, they settled in Farmington.

An undated courtesy photo of Cory Slifko, a South St.  Paul police officer, who died by suicide in 2019. Slifko was diagnosed by multiple doctors with post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his work.  Proposals in Congress and the Minnesota Capitol seek to change the suicide exclusion for people like the Slifkos by re-defining suicide by officers diagnosed with PTSD as no different than if they were gunned down by the hand of another -- or if they suffered a heart attack or stroke from job-related stress.  (Courtesy of Katie Sifko)
South St. Paul Police Sgt. Cory Slifko

“Cory and I talked a lot,” she said. “We talked every day about how the day went, so I knew when things went well and when they didn’t. So I know about the traumatic events he had. He was open about those as well.”

An ambitious officer, Slifko moved up in his assignments with the South St. Paul Police Department, from working night patrols to heading up investigations. Over the course of a 20-year career, he worked on the county SWAT unit as an assistant commander and a domestic abuse response team, eventually reaching the rank of sergeant overseeing other officers.

“This job was his life,” Katie said. “He loved it, and he wanted to be the best. But over the years, it took a toll on him between chronic pain and other events. They said cops see things in one day that the rest of us might see in a lifetime, but you’re meant to shake it off and go to the next call.”

The troubling stories Cory would tell Katie after his shift were frequent. There was a deadly fire, and Cory was assigned to stay with the bodies while firefighters battled the blaze and mopped up. There were autopsies of children he watched during homicide investigations. He pulled crash victims from vehicles if he was first on the scene; sometimes they were badly injured. A woman died by suicide and Cory’s gruesome role was collecting her remains. He was in standoffs with the SWAT team, encounters that felt like they could turn into deadly firefights at any moment. On more than one occasion, he was part of teams that found bodies in the Mississippi River.

Over time, Katie said, he suffered from lack of sleep and irritability, and both problems gradually and steadily increased.

“It wasn’t one incident, but multiple incidents.”

In 2013, Cory Slifko was arrested in a morning DWI in Rosemount in which he struck mailboxes before an officer rammed his SUV to stop it. He was wearing pajamas, didn’t have his wallet, and in addition to a blood-alcohol level that registered 0.175, he had taken a large amount of sleep medication, according to Katie Slifko and fellow officers who discussed the incident on an episode of the “Officer Down” podcast. Cory Slifko, who was charged with driving while impaired and fleeing a police officer, told them he didn’t remember the incident.

After being placed on leave, he ultimately returned to duty. During a burglary call inside a darkened industrial building in 2015, Slifko fell into an oil change pit that hadn’t been cordoned off, suffering head and neck injuries and numerous broken bones. He required repeated surgeries.

“He was never the same after that,” Katie said, referring to the physical pain he chronically suffered. Migraine headaches led him to sleep for days at a time. “I feel like this job took my best friend.”

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