Indianapolis was shaken when Indianapolis Metro Police (IMPD) Officer Perry Renn was gunned down July 5 in an exchange of gunfire with a suspect (Major Davis Jr.) in the area of 34th Street and Forest Manor Avenue. On July 6, Gary police officer Jeffrey Westerfield was shot, on his 47th birthday, in his patrol car on that city’s west side after he answered a domestic disturbance call. Both men have now been laid to rest, while their families, comrades, and communities continue to mourn their violent and unnecessary deaths.
While the families of Officer Renn (who leaves behind a wife of 21 years) and Officer Westerfield (who leaves behind 5 children) will be taken care of by each officer’s pensions, Indiana currently doesn’t provide the same benefits to every police officer’s family because of its ban on same-sex marriage.
On July 7, Mark Ahearn, general counsel to Governor Mike Pence, issued a memo to executive branch agencies telling them to act as if the U.S. District Court’s order, that determined Indiana’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, never happened. For IMPD Officers Pamela Lee and Teresa Welborn, the governor’s memo means their spouses are not be eligible to receive their pension benefits from the Public Employees Retirement System if they ever meet the same fate as Officers Renn and Westerfield. Both officers are plaintiffs in the cluster of federal lawsuits that will be heard by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in August to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Officer Pamela Lee
IMPD Officer Pam Lee has been a police officer for 23 years, just two years shy of the amount of time she’s been with her wife, Candace Batten-Lee. “Candy was the one who helped me become a police officer,” said Lee. “I was a musician in a band, but she said if we were going to stay together, I had to decide what I was going to do when I grew up.” Lee became an officer and spent three years with the Kansas City, Missouri police department, before moving to Indianapolis.
Lee had no hesitation in expressing her feelings about the current climate in law enforcement and the state’s position on same sex marriage. “In my 23 years of service, it has only been recently that I’ve worried about getting hurt or not coming home,” said Lee.
She says several different factors have contributed to her shift in thinking. Everything from fewer officers on the streets to increased paperwork and protocol has added to officers’ every day stresses. Lee said the growing apathy and lack of respect for officers is the most frustrating. Unfortunately, a lot of that lost respect is the result of the public misconduct of a few officers in recent memory.
“When one person screws up, every officer takes the fall,” said Lee. “Despite our own disgust and embarrassment in their actions, it’s the rest of us that have to deal with the scrutiny from the public.” Lee believes that lost respect a plays a factor in tragic cases like officers Renn and Westerfield.
It’s that same disgust and embarrassment that transcends to Gov. Mike Pence when Lee thinks about his position and recent edict regarding same sex marriage.
“I think it is disgraceful and disgusting how he can completely dismiss the hard work and sacrifice officers make,” said Lee. “I don’t see how he can sleep at night.”
Public safety personnel automatically give to their pension funds through payroll deduction and can draw on that pension after retirement. Their spouses, as named beneficiaries, can still draw their pension when they die post retirement or in the line of duty. Lee filled out the paperwork to have her wife listed as a beneficiary the day after Judge Young’s decision was announced. However, that paperwork is now void thanks to the memo from Pence’s general counsel.
“He [Pence] has no respect for us as human beings,” says Candy Batten-Lee, Officer Lee’s wife. “It is a slap in the face. He doesn’t have the right to treat us like second class citizens.”
Coincidentally, Batten-Lee is related to Pence by marriage. Pence’s wife, Karen, is Batten-Lee’s cousin.
IMPD Officer Teresa Welborn
Although she didn’t know him personally, IMPD Officer Teresa Welborn said Officer Renn’s death changed her path of service in law enforcement.
After 26 years of service, Welborn was on the fence about whether or not she should sign up for early retirement or continue to stay on the force. The current shortage of officers and the knowledge that another bump up in pay would come in six months were reasons to stay, but the dangers of the job were also reasons to leave. Welborn said initially, her wife, Beth Piette, told her it was her decision. But that changed while they were on vacation in Michigan. “I was in a dead sleep when Beth woke me up to tell me a fellow officer had been shot and killed in Indianapolis,” said Welborn. “She looked at me and said she wanted me to get out.”
Welborn has patrolled the street of Haughville nearly her entire career and has never felt unsafe or thought she was in danger. ”I’ve gone out jogging at three in the morning before and never had a problem or felt unsafe,” said Welborn. “People here know me and respect me and I know them.”
However, she does worry about her nephew who is currently a recruit at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, especially after recent events.
Welborn and Piette started dating shortly before Officer David Moore was shot and killed in 2011. Welborn knew David as well as his parents. “Beth went with me to the viewing,” said Welborn. “I wanted her to know what she was getting into with me and she wanted to be there.” The two married in Hawaii in 2013. Like Officer Lee, Welborn says the lack of respect from the state in acknowledging Beth as her wife and beneficiary is upsetting. “The fact that she [Beth] wouldn’t get the money I earned is offensive to me,” said Welborn. It was that realization that moved them to become plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.
Despite all of the challenges she has faced in her life and her career, Welborn feels like she has come full circle. “When I was 18, my father asked me if I was gay. I lied and said no because I knew he would kick me out of the house,” said Welborn. “I was in shock to see the number of people supporting us and the entire cause at the church [on Decision Day June 25]. It felt good to know, and I said it there, that the younger generation won’t have to have the same struggles and fight the same fight that we have.”
Despite his disapproval of her lifestyle, Welborn has a good relationship with her father and asked for his advice when deciding whether or not she should stay on the force or retire. Welborn said he told her it was her decision because he would blame himself if he told her to stay and something tragic happened to her in the line of duty.
The Fast Track to Appeal
Their case, along with the other same sex marriage challenges in Indiana, is on the fast track in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court has now combined Indiana’s cases with similar cases in Wisconsin and has set August 13 as the date to hear oral arguments. Briefs are due to the court August 5. Indianapolis attorney Karen Celestino-Horesman, who represents Lee and Welborn, says the fact that the appeals court will hear the case in August is significant. “Usually the court is on vacation in August, there isn’t much activity,” said Horesman.
Since the case will be presented to the court in August, Horseman says it is feasible for the appeals court to render a decision in September. The U.S. Supreme Court convenes in October and Horseman speculates the appeals court could return their decision in time for the cases to make the high court’s fall calendar. “This is the biggest civil rights issue of the century,” says Horseman. “It is humbling and exciting to be a part of it.”
Attorneys have not determined who will present oral arguments in August. Horseman is one in a group of attorneys representing the public safety officers. One of the other three Indiana cases is represented by the ACLU of Indiana, while the second is represented by Lambda Legal.
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