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What Happened to James Chasse: EDITORIAL - Chasse's death demands public inquest, illumination

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

EDITORIAL - Chasse's death demands public inquest, illumination

from The Oregonian

The death of James Philip Chasse Jr. in police custody makes no sense whatsoever, until you learn that he was mentally ill. And then, if it's possible, it makes even less. If Chasse's death was accidental, it is no less important to correct the failings that led to it. This death has rocked the conscience of the community.

Chasse, 42, was a gentle and artistic poet and musician who could have been your neighbor, your brother or your son. He was born in Portland, grew up here and attended the Metropolitan Learning Center. In his late teens, he began suffering from severe schizophrenia, and a stay in the state hospital seems to have, if anything, worsened his condition. People who knew him say he was never the same.

On Sept. 17, police officers observed Chasse acting oddly, and one officer thought he might have been urinating in public. If so, that was Chasse's first mistake. When police approached him, he made his second --running away from the officers, screaming "No!" with a look of horror on his face. Some people who are mentally ill are particularly paranoid about the police. And the way Chasse died suggests that this response may not be entirely irrational for someone in those circumstances.

When police caught up with him, one officer pushed Chasse and he fell to the ground. That same officer, police say, then landed on Chasse in what could have been an accidental fall. That might have been responsible for the massive injuries that led to Chasse's death, police suggest. Is this really a plausible explanation, though? Perhaps, but it bears further scrutiny in light of the violence surrounding Chasse's capture.

Many other questions need answering. Among them: Was it strictly necessary to go after Chasse? And why didn't he get the medical care more quickly that he should have gotten? Chasse went in and out of consciousness, and medics were called to the scene, but why did it take so long for everyone to recognize how seriously he'd been injured? By the time he was taken to the hospital, it may have already been too late to save him.

On Tuesday, a Multnomah County grand jury ruled that the officers involved should not face any criminal charges arising from Chasse's death. It's a narrow ruling that, while exonerating the officers of criminal wrongdoing, does almost nothing to explain what happened, why it happened or what the officers involved could, and should, have done differently. Because one thing is clear: This death should never have happened.

It's true that the burden of dealing with the mentally ill falls disproportionately on the shoulders of the police, as Police Chief Rosie Sizer pointed out in the immediate aftermath of Chasse's death. But that has been true for many years and it means, among many other things, that police need to get better at it. Mayor Tom Potter is right to follow up on this death by creating a task force that will recommend to the Oregon Legislature ways to deal with the mentally ill who are now on the street.

To their credit, neither the mayor nor the police chief tried to argue Tuesday that the review of this case is over. They know it has barely begun. In addition to a review within the Portland Police Bureau, this death demands a public inquest and a full public airing of the facts.

Chasse is not the first mentally ill person to die in police custody or at police hands. But what should come out of this tragedy is a new determination by the mayor and chief that this death be the last.

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