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What Happened to James Chasse: Death of mentally ill man spurs Potter idea

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Death of mentally ill man spurs Potter idea

from The Oregonian, by Anna Griffin

Mayor Tom Potter has talked about fighting homelessness and the causes behind it since he took office in 2004, but hopes the recent death of James Chasse Jr. in police custody will spur lasting changes in the way the city, county and the state handle people with mental illnesses and drug and alcohol addictions.

As soon as a Multnomah County grand jury releases its findings in Chasse's death --an announcement expected this morning --Potter plans to organize a committee of elected officials, mental health experts, police and advocates for the homeless. Their goal: to look for ways government can do a better job coordinating the often parallel efforts between psychiatrists and psychologists, doctors and nurses and police to prevent future tragedies.

"This is not just a Portland problem," said Potter, a retired police officer and former Portland police chief. "We need to look seriously at long-term solutions to tie together the good work that is already being done. From every indication, the system does not work well."

Chasse, 42, died of broad-based blunt force trauma to the chest Sept. 17 after a struggle with two Portland officers and a Multnomah County deputy sheriff. The officers first approached Chasse because they thought he was behaving oddly, as if he either were on drugs or had a mental disorder, and possibly urinating in the street, according to police. When he ran, they chased him.

Family members have said Chasse, who lived in a halfway house, had severe schizophrenia.

Chasse's death, Potter says, is not an isolated incident and not strictly a case of police officers overreacting, as some activists claim. Rather, he says, it's a sign that the entire state needs to rethink treatment opportunities for the mentally ill. He hopes his committee will include representatives from other cities and counties, state legislators and advocates from throughout Oregon. Ultimately, he'd like them to recommend a package of reforms to the Legislature.

Potter and his colleagues on the Portland City Council have made fighting homelessness and improving downtown safety priorities in recent months --two battles that can be tricky to balance. Downtown business leaders and tourism executives want police to get tough on panhandlers and vagrants in the central city. At the same time, many of the people who wander the streets --60 percent or more, Potter says --suffer from a mental illness or addiction. Locking them up or moving them to another part of town won't solve their problems and might make them worse.

"Since I'm responsible for Portland, I want to make sure that if there are inadequacies in training for our officers, that we fix them. At the same time, I know this is more than a police problem," Potter said. "We can't simply enforce our way out of this."

Potter says he doesn't have specific recommendations for his soon-to-be-formed committee, but wants to wait and hear what the experts say. But he does have one idea for ensuring that more people who need mental health care receive it: a day center, likely subsidized by the city, for homeless people. Right now, most downtown shelters close at 7 a.m.

He hopes to bring that idea to the City Council later this fall.

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