'Sacrificed himself for others': PTSD strikes Oregon City cop
The wife of a former Oregon City police officer is speaking up to raise awareness about the emotional trauma endured by police officers in OC and across the nation.
Karen Ellis, former OCPD Officer Sean Ellis' wife for 19 years, said he is "suffering from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder sustained in the line of duty throughout his years of service to this community."
Ellis experienced mental trauma both as a child-abuse investigator and as an initial witness to the 2013 murder of OCPD Reserve Officer Rob Libke, a tragedy that forever changed how police officers' mental health is treated in Oregon City and throughout the state.
"They walk the thin blue line between darkness and light so that the public doesn't have to walk it or even know about it," Ellis' wife said of police officers. "The toll this took on Sean was brutally obvious."
Mayor Rachel Lyles Smith commended Karen Ellis for speaking about her husband's plight and hoped she would continue her advocacy to help the community understand what officers and their families go through.
"There's a lot that our law-enforcement officers deal with that we go about living our lives and don't even know that it happens, but they deal with the worst of our society," Lyles Smith said. "We definitely owe them a lot of gratitude. (OCPD) Chief (Jim) Band asked me about a month ago, jokingly, 'Do you want to become a police officer? I need some more police officers,' and I was like, 'No way, no way.' I have so much respect for them, and I don't think I could possibly do the job."
Having become police chief just months before Libke was killed in 2013, Band agreed that a police officer's "job is stressful, ugly and difficult," and so it's not for everyone. Prior to taking the chief's job, Band served as an OC patrol officer and detective for many years, during which time he personally experienced fear for his life and endured the mental anguish of hearing from a 6-year-old girl who told him her story about being sexually abused. He said this abuse case is just one example of many, and these cases happen far more often than people realize.
"As hard as it is to hear that, I can bear the weight of coming along beside her to hear about what will probably be the worst thing that happened in her life," Band said. "We have to keep doing this job, because there's going to be another 6-year-old girl who needs us."
To aid officers in keeping up both their physical and mental fitness for the job, OCPD since Libke's death has introduced a two-pronged wellness incentive that encourages officers to regularly visit mental health professionals, in addition to passing a standardized cardiovascular rowing test pioneered by the Texas Department of Public Safety. These initiatives are meant to "normalize mental health as much as we can" in OCPD, while still providing for medical privacy, Band said. He frequently receives inquiries from agencies across the nation regarding OCPD's incentive and wellness program. Speaking at statewide conferences for public-safety training, he'd like visiting mental health professionals to be as routine for officers as cleaning their firearms.
"All we get is an invoice that the officer has seen the psychological clinician and we pay the bill," he said. "If you sprain your ankle, you would go in and see a doctor. If you sprain your brain, you would go in and see a doctor."
Also, since Libke's death, Band led the police department in completely restructuring its peer support group. The group of ad-hoc officers who had been "doing their best" to provide peers with emotional support had been "not very organized and structured" prior to 2013, so Band enlisted a trained psychologist to recreate a peer team from scratch.
OCPD officers were polled anonymously to provide their top five or six names of peers to serve on the new team, and those police officers receiving the most votes were asked to participate in professional peer-support training sessions.
"A lot of agencies around here are now using the same model," Band said.
Ellis had been on frontline
An OCPD veteran since 2006, Ellis was having lunch with his work-partner Libke at the police station at 1:04 p.m. on that fateful Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, when their meal was interrupted by a call about a fire about a mile away.
Libke and Ellis were the first officers at the crime scene, having heard from 911 dispatchers on route that the arsonist with singed grey hair was carrying a black handgun. Ellis spoke with a witness while Libke investigated Eastfield Drive, and Ellis then heard a loud pop he initially thought was crackling of the house fire.
Ellis soon found Libke already looking dead, and called in "officer down" at 1:08 p.m. From then on, Ellis and the other officers on scene worked to protect themselves and evacuate neighbors.
Ellis' wife said his psychological injuries took hold after Libke's line-of-duty death, and he's now potentially changed forever, although they're still hopeful of at least a partial recovery someday. His children have to be careful about making noise, she said, and the idea of being out in public scares him.
Referring to herself as "Mrs. P22," Ellis' wife said that officers are much more than a badge number. "A man with servant's heart" who "sacrificed himself for others," Ellis is a father of two, a brother and a "best friend" to his wife.
Ellis was assigned to investigating child pornography cases in 2016, leading to years of probing the "darkest evil, the ugliness of society." According to his wife, he also investigated the death of an infant by an assault on Easter Sunday.
"I begged him to ask his supervisor to remove him from this awful task, and he just said, 'Then someone else will have to do it. And why subject anyone (else) to it? It's horrible.' Not only did he do it for the victims, he did it so that another officer wouldn't have to," she told city commissioners.
Just prior to Ellis' speech on Nov. 3, the commission had honored the eighth anniversary of Libke's death and the immeasurable sacrifice he made to protect OC. His wife said that he wasn't able to speak at the meeting due to the pain of returning to the new Libke Public Safety Building, named for his former work partner and only three blocks from the address where Libke was killed.
Due to an ongoing worker's compensation case, OC's police chief can't currently speak about Ellis and his wife. However, it's clear that Ellis was a valued member of the police department and is missed by many in the community.
In 2015, Band presented OCPD's Distinguished Service award to Ellis, to commend his excellent work — then as new detective — on many cases. Among these cases, Ellis served as the lead investigator leading to a three-year prison sentence for 38-year-old Raymond Johnson's unlawful use of a weapon, a weapon that killed Johnson's 32-year-old wife, Rebekah Joy Johnson.
Treatment went 'too long'
Ellis eventually returned to regular patrol work, responding to reported domestic violence in February 2020, when a call of "shots fired" resulted in his sprinting with his rifle down the sidewalk. Ellis tripped on a broken sidewalk, damaging his left knee, and he hasn't been able to return to police work since.
"Though I don't think he realized it at the time, it took him back to this day in 2013 and all the horrible images and feelings that haunt him," his wife said. "The knee injury kept him home unable to work for months. I watched the mood swings become greater, the night terrors return, anxiety heightened, and the deafening silence that surrounded him and hung so thick in our home."
Ellis' knee healed but his brain wouldn't allow him to return to policing, his wife said. Although a "good steward" of his sick and vacation time, Ellis after 20 months is now unpaid and no longer an OCPD officer.
"He will no longer be able to provide salary or benefits to our family because his treatment has essentially gone on too long," she said. "PTSD is not a broken wrist — or even Sean's knee injury — that could allow him to come back to light duty. It is much more. Will Sean ever fully recover and return to policing? Will he recover enough for another type of job? We have no idea at this point. There is no formula for this, as everyone's brains are different."
Band couldn't comment on Ellis' case specifically but noted that state laws have generally standardized procedures for employees who are injured on the job, whether physically or mentally. In 2019, Oregon passed a law to presume PTSD coverage for police officers who have experienced traumatic events. Like other jurisdictions throughout Oregon, OC employees also have access to a free worker's compensation attorney to help them navigate the various state-sponsored systems.
"PTSD is a medical event, and it's treated no differently than if someone hurt their back," Band said. "City policies are entwined in state worker's compensation laws and federal law, but most cities are going to handle these the same."
Injured employees generally get a six-month period during which they can be treated while on the city's payroll, plus their previously earned sick time and vacation time. Once that time runs out, they can apply for medical retirement with a doctor, enroll in a free retraining process called vocational rehabilitation or seek disability payments through the Public Employees Retirement System.
Speaking generally about worker's compensation injury cases, Band said, "the state will retrain them to do certain things so they can get back in the workforce, if they're no longer able to do the job they were trained for. But the city can't just pay you in perpetuity throughout the rest of your life, and that's why there are these other programs."
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