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What Happened to James Chasse: Heed Portland's police chief on mental health

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Heed Portland's police chief on mental health

from The Oregonian

To some, it may have sounded like an excuse. The recent death of James Philip Chasse Jr., a 42-year-old mentally ill Portlander, while in police custody put Police Chief Rosie Sizer on the defensive, after all. She's at another disadvantage, too: She's not yet able to share all the facts surrounding Chasse's death.

Still, the chief was right Monday to remind us about the larger context surrounding this death: our broken mental health care system. Constantly dealing with the mentally ill is part of the "burden . . . police officers carry with them each and every

day . . . to an extent unprecedented in my 21-year tenure in the Police Bureau," Sizer said.

But that's not an excuse, and Sizer wasn't wielding it that way.

Sizer has promised to make the police investigation into Chasse's death public as soon as possible. That's good, but as we've argued for years, any death at police hands or in police custody also demands a public inquest. Both Chasse's death in custody and another recent death in the area --the police shooting of Lukus Glenn, 18, of Tigard --underscore why a public inquest is always essential.

For the public, both of these deaths instinctively fall into the category of: "This shouldn't have happened." Both Glenn's and Chasse's families deserve a full public airing of the facts. And only a public inquest can elucidate the circumstances sufficiently to rebuild a foundation of public trust and confidence in the law enforcement agencies involved.

But invaluable as public inquests would be in these cases, Oregon needs a more proactive strategy for dealing with the mentally ill (Chasse) and those in crisis (Glenn). These two recent deaths strongly suggest that it's time to consider mandating intensive training in crisis intervention and in dealing with the mentally ill for patrol officers.

True, some get a few hours of training now, and some agencies provide more intensive training on a voluntary basis. (With 188 officers certified in crisis intervention, Portland is one of the leaders in this field.) It's also important to emphasize that no training program can eliminate such tragic deaths. At times, events spin out of control and police must act to protect themselves and the public.

But teaching police smarter, safer, low-key approaches to dealing with the mentally ill and people in crisis could save lives. And police careers, too. "The officers were devastated" by Chasse's death, the chief said Tuesday. "This is not the outcome they desired or expected."

Although it would be expensive to train all officers intensively to intervene with the mentally ill, Portland and other police agencies need to start calculating the cost, making the pitch and pushing for such intensive training, not just for new officers, but for police bureau veterans, too.

Police shouldn't shoulder so much of the burden of dealing with the mentally ill and those in crisis, but, as Sizer acknowledged this week, they often do. As long as they make up the front line in dealing with people in these situations, it would be better for everyone --the officers, and the community --if police really knew what to do.

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