For Baltimore police Det. Suiter's family, suicide finding could mean losing more than half a million dollars

For the family of Det. Sean Suiter, an independent panel's finding that he took his own life could mean the loss of more than half a million dollars in benefits, workers’ compensation and pension payouts that accrue to police officers killed in the line of duty.

Suiter was fatally shot in a vacant lot in West Baltimore in November. The medical examiner’s office ruled his death a homicide, but after reviewing the evidence the panel concluded that Suiter actually took his own life while making it look as though he had been killed by an attacker.

In a report the panel issued this week, its members said Suiter, a father of five, had an incentive to obscure the way that he was killed.

“Detective Suiter was no doubt aware that the BPD benefits package available to his family for a police officer who is killed in the line of duty is far more lucrative than the entitlements for a police officer who has taken his life,” they wrote.

“In addition, DOJ provides funds to families of fallen law enforcement officers. There are reputational issues as well, both personal and public.”

Suiter’s widow, Nicole Suiter, has rejected the panel’s findings, saying she believes her husband was murdered and that his killing is being covered up. Her attorney said some benefits had already been received by the family, although it’s not clear how much or where the money came from.

So what are the families of police officers killed in the line of duty generally entitled to? And how might a finding that he killed himself affect those benefits?

» A U.S. Department of Justice program provides a $350,000 cash payout for the family of officers killed in the line of duty, and $1,000 a month in higher education tuition assistance to their children. It would be up to Suiter’s family to prove that his death qualified for the payments, and federal law says the money is unavailable if the death was caused “by such officer’s intention.” A spokesman for the Justice Department didn’t respond to questions about whether Suiter’s family had applied for the money.

» The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services administers a program that provides a $158,000 payment to the families of fallen officers. Department spokesman Gerard Shields said the money is not paid in cases of suicide. Nothing has been paid yet to Suiter’s family and Shields said the department is “waiting for an official decision from the Baltimore police on whether they consider the death in the line of duty.”

» The family of an officer killed on duty could apply for workers’ compensation, worth up to $1,000 a week, but a suicide would not be covered. It’s up to the family to apply and make the case that they qualify. H. Scott Curtis, an attorney for the Workers’ Compensation Commission, said Suiter’s family hadn’t filed a claim.

» The Baltimore Police and Fire Retirement System pays back the pension contributions of officers killed on the job to their families and also pays a pension equal to the officer’s salary — that’s $79,000 a year in Suiter’s case. The families of officers found not to have died in the line of duty can opt either for the return of the pension contributions or ongoing payments equaling half the officers salary per year. It’s not clear how a determination that Suiter killed himself would affect his case, and the status of his pension wasn’t clear. A spokeswoman for the retirement system declined to discuss an individual case.

» Any life insurance policy Suiter had generally would be required to pay out even in the case of suicide, as long as it had been in effect for two years.

Document: Read the full Independent Review Board report on Det. Suiter's death »

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