Towards the end of my police career, and a couple of years before my retirement, one thing continued to worry me greatly — losing one of my officers. Sure, I had been to many police funerals during the course of my thirty-year career, but losing an officer under my command was a growing worry and an event I had thankfully not experienced — nor did I wish to.
This week, that fearful feeling came to surface again when I heard that a young Wauwatosa (Wisc.) police officer, Jennifer Sebena, age 30, and two years on the force, had been ambushed and murdered while on duty on Christmas Eve.
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported:
“When Jennifer Lynn Sebena didn’t respond to her radio early Christmas Eve, dispatchers sent fellow officers to search for the rookie police officer. Police later made a grisly discovery – Sebena’s body, shot numerous times. Her colleagues at the Wauwatosa Police Department launched a homicide investigation to find out who killed Sebena and why…
“Jennifer Sebena, 30, attended the Milwaukee Area Technical College police academy and joined the force in January 2011. She began as a solo patrol officer with Wauwatosa police in July 2012 and completed probation with the department just last month.”
An officer she worked with described her as a “great person, great officer.” Another fellow officer described her as having “a really good, well-rounded personality, and a maturity that was remarkable.” She was the first Wauwatosa police officer killed in the line of duty. The police department and community were stunned with shock and grief.
As the news unfolded, we learned that her husband, Ben, was a former Marine who was currently on disability. In a video put out by their church community, Ben talked about meeting his future wife while he was on his second tour in Iraq. His unit had been part of the invasion force at the start of the Iraq War in 2003 and they returned in 2004. At was during this tour that Ben was seriously injured in a mortar attack that killed a buddy in February 2005 in Ramadi.
On the video, Ben talks about meeting a 22-year-old woman, Jennifer, on a social networking site. He said they kept on writing each other emails. When he returned to the states for treatment he continued his courtship with Jennifer. They were soon married and joined a church in nearby Brookfield.
In reviewing that 10 minute video, I, as a pastor and former police chief, sensed that Ben was doing the right things. He and Jen joined a young couple’s group and Ben was involved in a men’s support group. He talked about dedicating his life to God and reaching out to veterans. He verbalized his feelings of fear, being unsafe and anger and it seemed at the time he was getting them under control. As a pastor, I know that coming to faith and serving others is a powerful antidote to feelings of fear. being unsafe, and anger. There is nothing on that video that raised any “red flags” for me.
But those of us in the police field know that the first step in “Homicide Investigation 101” is interviewing the victim’s spouse. And as this investigation unfolded, Jennifer’s husband was found to be the killer. He stalked her that night of Christmas Eve and then ambushed her. He is now in jail awaiting trial.
According to reports, he shot her first with his handgun and then disarmed her and shot her more times. In the news reports he mentions being jealous. But what about Ben’s injuries, what he experienced and the possibility of PTSD being a factor here? Did these demons override his commitment to both God and Jennifer?
A sad, sad story. This was not how the short police career of Jennifer Sebena was supposed to end. What went wrong? Did any of her colleagues or supervisors know about what was going on? Did she contact any of them? What about the men close to Ben in his men’s group at church? What happened? But most of all, how did this go so wrong?
Domestic abuse impacts many women in our society. Even those who are strong, disciplined and well-trained as police officers. The message to me is that those of us who lead police must be sensitive to the events that impact our officers’ lives. This also applies to those of us who are pastors. Sometimes, a woman does not report violence at home for fear that it might impact her career or her standing in her community or church. We must all work to overcome this.
At the end of my book, Arrested Development , I reflected back to my police career:
“My life as a chief would have been easier if I had learned and practiced the following earlier in my career: listening more, speaking less, managing by walking around, working more closely with the police union, knowing more about the personal lives of my employees (there is no way police officers can leave their personal lives in their lockers when they come to work and strap on a gun). I wish I had more understanding and empathy when my officers were suffering from depression, a divorce, or a death in the family” (p. 209).
Those concerns came to light again for me when I heard about the death of Jennifer Sebena. This tragic situation underlines two major problems in our society: domestic violence and the long-term care needed by those whom we send off to do war in our name.
May Jennifer’s soul rest in peace.
And may we be given wisdom and strength to respond to both of these problems as a people and a nation.
[Note: The Wauwatosa Peace Officers Association (WPOA), has set up a memorial fund for Officer Jennifer Sebena. Those wishing to show support can do so by making donations to the “Officer Jen Sebena Memorial Fund” at any branch of Focus Credit Union. There are two branches in Wauwatosa: 3180 N. 124th St., Suite A and 1530 N. 68th St. There is also a branch in Menomonee Falls, at N88 W14930 Main St. Donations can be made via check, cash or debit transfer.]