OREGON CITY, Ore. — Oregon City police forcefully defended two police officers’ decision to leave a fallen fellow officer on the ground near a suspect for 90 minutes in November.
Oregon City Police Chief Jim Band said Monday that the two initial responding officers believed police officer-in-training Robert Libke was dead, and a third officer who arrived later also believed Libke died instantly. It wasn’t until a SWAT team arrived and witnessed Libke move his arm that they switched from a recovery mission to a rescue mission.
A SWAT team physician said Libke would likely have died regardless of the 90-minute delay.
Band said Monday, at the release of the department’s investigation into Libke’s death, that it’s unclear whether the officers who initially saw Libke lying injured would have acted differently if they knew he was still alive.
“It’s a gray area,” Band said. “You make a plan based on what you know. It depends on what you could see.”
Libke, 41, was fatally shot while responding to a house fire started by an 88-year-old man who had a gun. The gunman, Lawrence Cambra, then killed himself.
The officers knew a gunman was nearby, Band said, and believed reaching Libke — whom they presumed was dead — would unnecessarily put them each in danger.
The investigation released Monday detailed the series of events that led to the Nov. 3 shooting. It included video and still images taken both by police and fire department dashboard cameras and shaky hand-held recordings by neighbors.
Libke responded to a report of a house fire about 1 p.m. Before arriving, a neighbor called 911 and said Cambra had a handgun.
A video taken by someone across the street from the house fire was shown to reporters, but it will not be released publicly. It shows thick columns of smoke rising from the house and Libke exiting the side door of a patrol car driven by Libke’s training officer, who continued up the street to interrogate two men nearby.
The video shows Libke approach a fence, where a neighbor said he heard Libke order someone to drop their weapon. A second passes and Libke falls. A forensic report would later show that Libke was struck above his right eyebrow by a hollow-point bullet fired from a 5-round Smith &Wesson handgun.
“The bullet transferred all the impact to his brain,” said Dr. Seth Izenberg, who serves with the Clackamas County SWAT team and was the physician who tried to stabilize Libke. “I don’t think he felt anything. That shockwave set the future course medically.”
Izenberg said the arm movement seen by the SWAT team after Libke was left for 90 minutes “may not have been anything more than a change in the pH of the muscle.”
Izenberg called the delay “a blessing,” allowing Libke to die within a day, rather than prolonging his gradual but inevitable death by several days.
Band said the 90-minute delay in reaching Libke potentially saved the lives of the responding officers, who only wore bullet-proof vests and had no other protection, and believed based on the location of the wound that Cambra had a rifle.
“At some point, there’s going to come a cost-benefit analysis,” Band said. “We all make different decisions. That comes out of training into a place of just what is the risk of my own life less saving (the life of) my buddy.”