Police memorial wall comes with some tough calls

DETROIT — Deciding which police officers killed in the line of duty belong on a national memorial usually is driven by facts and presents few obstacles. But this year, two cases show that it isn’t always so black-and-white to honor the nation’s fallen men and women in blue.

This year, the cases of two inductees highlight different challenges facing leaders of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which holds a vigil Monday for 321 officers added to the wall in Washington, D.C.

Detective Sgt. Caleb Embree Smith of the Flint Police Department died by poisoning in 1921, and Wauwatosa, Wis., Officer Jennifer Sebena was shot multiple times while working last Christmas Eve. Her husband has been charged in her death.

The final decision by the memorial board last month to include Sebena was ultimately unanimous but came after pressure from lawmakers, police and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The group’s board reversed its original rejection of Sebena’s bid that was based on the belief that she died as a victim of domestic violence. But after reviewing hundreds of pages of reports, and speaking with the local police chief and prosecutor, the board decided Sebena died in the line of duty and deserved to be honored.

Smith’s nomination also received unanimous approval and didn’t require a reversal, but the nearly century-old case came with its own shades of gray: He was poisoned, though it was never determined how or by whom. Despite the passing of time, missing pieces and unusual cause of death, the group determined it was a line-of-duty death.

“It would be easy to say OK to everyone,” said Craig Floyd, the fund’s chairman and chief executive. “We do need to give that wall a certain integrity.”

The integrity, Floyd said, comes through following a process and abiding by certain rules, even if it means facing scrutiny, such as with the Sebena case. The nonprofit organization requires that in order to be chosen for inclusion on the wall, the officer must have died in the course of duty and served directly for a governmental agency with the powers to arrest.

Exclusions include officers who engaged in misconduct or gross negligence, or died as a result of substance abuse or suicide. Still, Floyd recognizes those are problems within law enforcement.

The group considered 632 cases for inclusion this year. Slightly more than half were approved, only 13 were denied, and the roughly 300 remaining await more information or final sign-off by the department or agency that employed the officer, he said.

He said the group first saw the Sebena case as a “death of personal nature” and not one because of her work, and said similar cases previously had been denied. But officials with the Wisconsin Professional Police Association found other officers honored by the group had died in similar circumstances.

Association spokesman Jim Palmer, who cast one of the 15 votes to add Sebena’s name, told The Associated Press last month he hoped the board would avoid future controversies by enacting clear rules.

“They have a difficult test every year. These decisions aren’t necessarily easy,” he said.

Floyd said a closer look provided clarity: Authorities accuse Benjamin Sebena of ambushing his wife from behind as she conducted a routine solo patrol in the Milwaukee suburb. The Iraq War veteran pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the charge of first-degree intentional homicide, and his trial is scheduled to start in July.

“She was clearly murdered while on duty — in uniform,” Floyd said. “Upon reconsideration, we came to a different conclusion — I think the proper conclusion.”

Some cases lack controversy but require scrutiny because of their age and various peculiarities. Such was the case with the Flint officer Smith, who died within hours of eating his lunch on Oct. 27, 1921. The cause of death was arsenic poisoning and an autopsy found trace amounts of strychnine and other chemicals in his body.

Floyd said Smith’s case, researched by his granddaughter, Kathleen Smith, and Flint police Sgt. Greg Hosmer, was unusual for investigators because it involved poisoning and it was never solved. He credited the careful investigation by family and police as well as the department’s recommendation.

“We didn’t believe we met the criteria in D.C. to have him honored, but we did the best we could to at least have him memorialized here in this city,” said Hosmer, a veteran investigator of the city’s cold cases. “As far as I was concerned, he died in the line of duty. We did send it on to D.C., in hopes that they would see it differently.”

For Smith, researching the grandfather she never knew helped fill some holes in genealogical history and carry on the legacy of her father, the family’s “keeper of everything sacred” who died in 2002.

“It was fun to go back and see if we could find a little bit more, a little bit more,” Smith said. “My dad never knew some of this. … It was nice to know that it wasn’t a made-up story.”

The memorial board also was challenged as it dealt with deaths on Sept. 11, 2001, or those stemming from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

One difficult case was that of Ronald Bucca, a fire marshal with the New York City Fire Department who was among the first responders and one of hundreds of them killed.

The board first concluded Bucca didn’t qualify, since he was a firefighter — and firefighters have a national memorial in Emmitsburg, Md. But it reconsidered upon learning that fire marshals in the state of New York have arrest powers. Bucca’s name now graces both the police and fire memorials.

While the rules have served the organization for 25 years, Floyd acknowledged that sometimes they are changed when a compelling case can be made. For instance, Floyd said officials added a paragraph to the criteria that says a correctional officer qualifies if he or she had primary responsibility and custody of a prisoner at the time of death.

“Our job is not to exclude officers from the memorial, our job is to make sure we cross all the Ts and dot all the Is,” Floyd said. “We err on the side of inclusion whenever there’s any doubt at all.”

Talk to us

More in Local News

A grave marker for Blaze the horse. (Photo provided)
After Darrington woman’s horse died, she didn’t know what to do

Sidney Montooth boarded her horse Blaze. When he died, she was “a wreck” — and at a loss as to what to do with his remains.

A fatal accident the afternoon of Dec. 18 near Clinton ended with one of the cars involved bursting into flames. The driver of the fully engulfed car was outside of the vehicle by the time first responders arrived at the scene. (Whidbey News-Times/Submitted photo)
Driver sentenced in 2021 crash that killed Everett couple

Danielle Cruz, formerly of Lynnwood, gets 17½ years in prison. She was impaired by drugs when she caused the crash that killed Sharon Gamble and Kenneth Weikle.

A person walks out of the Everett Clinic on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
The Everett Clinic changing name to parent company Optum in 2024

The parent company says the name change will not affect quality of care for patients in Snohomish County.

Tirhas Tesfatsion (GoFundMe) 20210727
Lynnwood settles for $1.7 million after 2021 suicide at city jail

Jail staff reportedly committed 16 safety check violations before they found Tirhas Tesfatsion, 47, unresponsive in her cell.

Diane Kay Thompson, center, listens during their sentencing at Snohomish County Superior Court in Everett, Washington on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Marysville woman sentenced to 2 years for running over, killing husband

Diane Thompson pleaded guilty to manslaughter. “My home was taken, my daughters hate me and I have no money to my name,” she said.

The Marysville Municipal Jail is pictured Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, in Marysville, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Marysville weighs mandatory jail time for repeated ‘public disorder’

The “three strikes” proposal sets a minimum sentence of 30 days in jail for crimes like public drug use and trespassing.

A girl walks her dog along a path lined with dandelions at Willis D. Tucker Community Park on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, in Snohomish, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Spraying in Willis Tucker Park resurfaces debate over herbicides

Park staff treated about 11,000 square feet with glyphosate and 2,4-D. When applied correctly, staff said they aren’t harmful.

Cash is used for a purchase at Molly Moon's Ice Cream in Edmonds, Washington on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
County Council delays vote on requiring businesses to take cash

Concerns over information and enforcement postponed the council’s scheduled vote on the ordinance Wednesday in Snohomish County.

Thrill-seekers fly through the air on a ride during opening day of the Evergreen State Fair on Thursday, August 24, 2023, in Monroe, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Evergreen State Fair attendance dips 9% from 2022

Slightly over 228,000 people attended the fair this year in Monroe, down from 253,000 last year and 355,000 in 2019.

Most Read