At just 5 years old, Jason Baker had already met his hero. Every day he watched that hero keep people safe. His hero didn’t clock out at 5 p.m., didn’t take holidays off, and didn’t hang up his cape.
His hero was his father, Jerry Baker. A former police officer at IUPUI and O’Neill IUPUI faculty member, Jerry started his law enforcement career in Albion, Michigan, eventually becoming the chief of police.
“It was a small enough community that Jason could walk down to the station after school and do his homework,” his father recalls. “Everybody knew him; everybody loved him.”
That station set the stage for Jason’s future.
“He learned that life goes on 24/7 and you can make a difference,” Jerry Baker says. “There was no doubt in Jason’s mind what he was going to do when he grew up.”
After a move to Indianapolis in 1991, Jerry joined IU’s police department. Jason wasn’t far behind on his own law enforcement journey.
At the age of 13, Jason became a Cadet for the city, then an Explorer with the Marion County Sherriff’s Department. When he turned 19, he left IU Bloomington to join the sheriff’s department full time, working his way up to deputy.
Jason enrolled part-time at O’Neill IUPUI to make good on a promise to his parents to finish his college education.
But on Monday, September 17, 2001, everything changed. At 24 years old—one week shy of his 25th birthday—Jason Baker was killed in the line of duty.
GUNSHOTS ON THE RADIO
Even though they were on different departments, Jason could still communicate with his dad on their police radios. They checked in with each other a few hours into their shifts that day. By Jerry’s account, a slow day.
Jerry went about his duties on campus. Jason radioed to headquarters that he was pulling over a vehicle. One suspect fled, the others drove off.
“I got on the radio and Jason was in a pursuit,” his father recalls. “When he came around the last corner, he keyed up his radio to give his location. But instead of hearing his voice, you heard gunshots.”
The suspects ambushed Jason. As Jerry sped toward the area, he called his wife, Sharon, to tell her something was wrong. When he arrived on the scene, he realized just how wrong things were. Jason had just been taken away by ambulance.
“The first thing I saw when I arrived at the hospital was that no one was working on him,” Jerry says. “That told me what had happened.”
The men responsible for Jason’s death were all captured, all convicted, except one who was killed that night.
“Jason knew these were bad people and he needed to stop them,” Jerry says. “He stayed in the fight with what turned out to be his dying breath.”
BEYOND THE BADGE
It took some time for the Bakers to get back on their feet, but once they did they turned their life-changing event into something that would change other lives for the better.
They started the Beyond the Badge 5K Run/Walk one year after Jason’s death. The event brings families together and gives the community the chances to thank those who have served, who are serving, and who will serve.
“Jason hated running,” Jerry says with a laugh. “But he knew it was important. We tried to teach our kids that physical health and mental health go hand-in-hand, so we wanted something that would remind people of those same principles.”
Now in its 17th year, the 5K raises money for the Jason Baker Legacy Scholarship, which helps pay tuition for O’Neill students pursuing a public safety career. Plans are already in the works for next year’s event, slated for Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019.
The scholarship has helped nearly two dozen students with tuition, including Darian Lewellen, who graduated in May with a degree in criminal justice and is now a reserve officer with the Thorntown Police Department.
Like Jason, Lewellen grew up around law enforcement and knew he wanted to be a public servant. When he learned about the scholarship, he knew it could help him achieve that goal. He admits that receiving this scholarship is about far more than money.
“I feel like I need to do my best to live up to Jason’s legacy,” he says. “He was a really good police officer and a good person. It’s a big responsibility and will take a lot of character and integrity to be what Jason was.”
Jerry Baker knows students may not know the history behind the numerous scholarship opportunities at IUPUI, which is why he asks students who apply for Jason’s scholarship to research about him and how he died.
“You respect things more when you put a face to a story,” Lewellen says. “I do hope that I can be half the officer Jason was, half the person Jason was.”
With help from the Indiana University Foundation, the Bakers have taken steps to ensure that future generations of public safety servants will have a helping hand as they pursue their careers.
“We were able to grow this scholarship from scratch,” Baker says. “If something happened to me tomorrow and no one put on another event, there would always be a scholarship and Jason’s legacy will continue to inspire new generations of young people to enter public safety.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE THROUGH A LASTING LEGACY
Jerry and Sharon Baker are still heroes to many people, including students like Lewellen and others who have passed through the halls of O’Neill.
Baker became an O’Neill faculty member in January 2008 when he developed the school’s first “Citizen’s Police Academy” course. For eight years, the course provided perspective and
insight about what it’s like to work in law enforcement. While the course’s name changed to “Introduction to Modern Police Practices,” it remains a staple for students a decade later.
“To me, the college experience is about personal growth when you’re on your own for the first time,” Jerry says. “In academics, it’s so important to have someone who’s been there to explain the textbook side of things in a practical, applicable way.”
After serving 42 years in law enforcement, Jerry retired from IU. Sharon, an O’Neill graduate herself, is the human resources director for Perry Township Schools.
The Bakers’ dedication to O’Neill students and to public service have cemented a legacy not only for Jason, but also for themselves. In April 2018, the Bakers received IUPUI’s Spirit of Philanthropy Award for their contributions to those students they hope will follow in their son’s footsteps someday.
“Jason was about doing the right thing the right way at the right time, all the time,” Jerry says. “In today’s society—where law enforcement is under a lot of scrutiny—we need more people like Jason.”
To learn more about or donate to the Jason M. Baker Public Safety Scholarship, visit www.heroesofpublicsafety.org.