Retired Gary police officer Kenneth Shannon has attended a lot of funerals over the years. Some of his fallen comrades died in car accidents and others were killed by gunfire.
Today, Shannon watched from a balcony seat in a downtown convention center as dozens of law enforcement officers walked passed a closed casket of Gary Patrolman Jeffrey Westerfield – the latest to die in the line of duty.
“He was a very personable person. A well-liked guy,” Shannon said. “It’s just a tragedy that someone would think of doing something like this to an officer.”
That something occurred during the early morning hours of Sunday, July 6th – the very day Westerfield was to celebrate his 47th birthday.
The 19-year veteran responded to a call near 26th and Van Buren, only a couple of blocks from Michael Jackson’s boyhood home. He was later found dead of a gunshot wound, sitting in his police cruiser about 5:30 a.m.
The death rocked a city that is no stranger to gun violence. And now some are asking if Gary has enough resources to protect not just its citizens – but its own cops.
“It’s bad everywhere but the city is basically safe. You’ve got a group of thugs that want to do what they want to do and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Still, that doesn’t mean the city isn’t trying.
Gary officials want to boost patrols, but with a dwindling tax base there’s not much money to go around. The city, once one of the largest in the state, is down to less than 80-thousand residents. It’s not even the largest in Lake County, Indiana.
Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter says he’s hoping to divert resources from the county level to help.
“Gary obviously needs the assistance and you see our community being so aggressive with crime. You see it in Chicago too, but I think it goes back to parenting and kids and now we’re paying the price for it,” Carter said.
Longtime Gary City Councilman Roy Pratt also says Westerfield’s death raises questions about police patrol tactics.
It’s not so much manpower but we’ve got to have more on the evening shift. He was alone by himself,” Pratt said.
The City’s Mayor, Karen Freeman Wilson, says she’ll soon talk with the county sheriff’s department about beefing up patrols. And she may ask Indiana Governor Mike Pence to assign state police to help as well.
She asked twice last year and was rejected both times. Although the Governor’s office provided training and offered suggestions on improving the city’s 227-member police force.
“Of course today is for the family but tomorrow is really for us to analyze of what’s going on and how we can do better,” Freeman-Wilson said at today’s funeral.
Some would say it’s hard to do much better than an officer like Jeffrey Westerfield.
Dean Hensley lived on the same block as Westerfield in the Black Oak neighborhood. He says it was important to his fallen friend to live where he worked.
“Jeff didn’t have a hard job. Jeff was the kind of guy that could walk into any situation and defuse it in a heartbeat. He could turn a tragedy into a blessing,” Hensley said. “We’re just going to have to go on with life and remember him. Now, we have another angel watching over us.”
Officer Jeffrey Westerfield leaves behind four daughters, a son and a fiance.
A person of interest is being held with criminal charges possibly coming soon.