Wauwatosa Police Officer Jennifer Lynn Sebena
Photo credit: Courtesy Photo
Wauwatosa's police chief praised the unanimous decision Wednesday of a national nonprofit organization to add the name of a Wauwatosa police officer killed on the job to its memorial wall, reversing an earlier decision.
Officer Jennifer Sebena's name will be inscribed later this month on a national monument created and maintained by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and officially dedicated at the memorial's annual candlelight vigil on May 13.
"I am very pleased with the decision made today by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. I believe the correct decision was made," Wauwatosa police Chief Barry Weber said in a statement.
"Her sacrifice should not be forgotten and will not be forgotten. I thank everyone who has been supportive of our department. I was confident the right decision would ultimately be made. And it was."
The fund initially decided not to include Sebena on its memorial wall in Washington, D.C., apparently because the suspect in her on-duty slaying is her husband, Benjamin Sebena, making the crime an act of domestic violence.
The fund then announced it would delay a decision until next year, but then switched again and set a special meeting for Wednesday.
The unanimous vote was taken verbally by the fund's board of directors, said Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association
"We came up with a number of cases that were similar, practically identical, and it was clear the board was not aware of those cases from the comments the members made. It absolutely played a role" in the decision, Palmer said Wednesday.
The WPPA had pointed out that the memorial fund includes officers killed in nearly identical situations, such as Gwen Downs of Louisville, Ky., who was shot to death on duty in 1977 by her estranged husband.
Palmer, who addressed the fund's board immediately before the vote, said he understands the board has a difficult task in choosing whom to add to the memorial wall.
"I strongly encouraged the memorial to avoid ways for this to occur in the future, because I think it was avoidable, and consider what they can do to improve the process," said Palmer, suggesting the board conduct more outreach when questions arise on a case.
The fund issued a news release Wednesday explaining that the board committee that normally reviews officer fatality cases had originally determined in February that Sebena did not qualify for inclusion on the memorial, in light of the personal circumstances relating to her death. The board of directors then felt that the "unique circumstances of the case warranted further research and reviews," according to the release.
The fund's chairman and chief executive, Craig W. Floyd, said the organization takes the "utmost care and diligence" when determining the names to be inscribed on the memorial.
"While Officer Sebena's case was unusual, the NLEOMF Board of Directors believes that the review of Officer Sebena's case was in all respects prudent and that the final vote to honor Officer Sebena by adding her name to the memorial is the right decision," Floyd said in the release.
The board's review determined that Sebena was carrying out her duties as a law enforcement officer at the time of her death; the memorial has precedents involving similar circumstances; and the Wauwatosa police had formally declared her death "in the line of the duty." The fund's criteria states: "An officer shall be included if a department states that the officer died in the line of duty and there is no information to believe otherwise."
The fund's preliminary decision sparked widespread outrage with more than 16,000 people signing an online petition and the WPPA fiercely advocating for Sebena's inclusion.
Support for Sebena grew quickly with Gov. Scott Walker, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, 43 members of the Wisconsin Legislature, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee police Chief Edward Flynn imploring the fund to add her name to the wall.
Walker and Barrett thanked Floyd and the board for the decision.
Sebena was killed while on duty on Dec. 24. Her husband has pleaded not guilty to first-degree intentional homicide by reason of mental disease or defect.
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