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What Happened to James Chasse: Officers unfairly burdened dealing with mentally ill

Monday, October 23, 2006

Officers unfairly burdened dealing with mentally ill

from the Portland Police Union's newsletter The Rap Sheet
October 2006
by Detective Peter Simpson - Tactical Operations Division, 360-518-3429

In the month of September, there were two separate officer involved death investigations involving mentally ill persons. The first was the shooting death of Lukus Glenn who had been threatening his mother with a knife. The second, the in-custody death of James Chasse by means of broad-based blunt force trauma, was ruled an accident by the medical examiner.

Both cases highlight the fact the as police officers, we are often tasked with the difficult job of getting mentally ill persons under control. In many cases, we are expected to accomplish this task without using any kind of force, which simply isn’t possible in many cases.

By now, both of these cases have been tried in the media and hashed over a million times. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t sympathize with the families of both Glenn and Chasse. This includes police officers. But as police officers, we understand the situations much better than the average Joe and we have sympathy for the officers involved and their families as well. This is something that many others don’t understand.

None of the officers involved in either incident went to work that day with a plan to become involved in a deadly force encounter. They just happened, which is often times the nature of police work.

There has been a lot of talk about using alternatives to deadly force. Never mind that police officers in this area, and in particular this city, are some of the best trained in the nation when it comes to dealing with the mentally ill. Never mind that we’ve been given pepper spray, Asp batons, bean bag shotguns and Tasers. Police officers are expected to magically deal with people that nobody else can or wants to deal with and do it without using any physical force. Sometimes… well sometimes that just isn’t realistic.

Read Carole Moore’s story in this issue and you’ll see that the problem of dealing with mentally ill people is a nationwide problem for police officers. The closing of mental health facilities and the outright rejection of medial treatment by hospitals forces the mentally ill onto the street where they are left to fend for themselves.

I remember reading several years ago about some advocates for the mentally ill describing how great it is that many of these people cannot be forced into facilities and they are able to live freely in any neighborhood they like to pursue the American dream.

For some, this arrangement works out fine and they are able to keep themselves stable with the proper medication and utilization of mental health services. But many others aren’t capable of taking care of themselves at all. They simply need to be told what to do all the time to maintain some sort of normal life. Without that structure, they become victims of crime and fall into deadly spirals that they can’t get out of.

I spoke with some of the people who work with Project Respond and they told me that they are seeing an increase in the mentally ill on the streets of Portland and that they are not receiving treatment. Project Respond does outreach to the mentally ill homeless community in Portland and works closely with Portland Police officers.

While the deaths of both Glenn and Chasse are tragic for their families and friends, perhaps the bigger tragedy is that they weren’t receiving the help they needed. Glenn reportedly had attempted suicide in the past and was threatening suicide the night he died. Chasse had been receiving some treatment, but
clearly needed something more intensive. Both had families that have spoken out since their deaths but you have to wonder how involved they were prior to their deaths.

What would have happened if the drunk, suicidal, out of control Glenn had not been shot by police and was allowed to reenter his mother’s house, armed with a knife? Would he have passed out? Would he have calmed down and gone to bed? Would he have committed suicide? Would he have killed his mother?

Nobody knows these answers and the officers on the scene had to make a split-second decision without the luxury of hindsight. Had they not shot and Glenn had gone into the house and killed his mother, what would the papers be saying then? Chasse’s bizarre behavior made him the subject of police contact and during that contact he ran and fought with officers who unsuccessfully tried to Taser him.

The officers appropriately summoned EMS to check Chasse for injuries and only after his release by medical did they transport him to jail where they were told that Chasse would have to go to the hospital. There was little the officers could have done differently to change the outcome of this incident.

Hopefully, the politicians and citizens take a minute and recognize that it’s an unfair burden to put on police officers to handle every encounter with a mentally ill person without using physical force. Hopefully it will start a process in which those politicians and citizens develop a plan to protect these mentally ill persons from the self-destructive behavior that often results in police contact.

The mentally ill and the police officers deserve something better.

Mayor’s statement after Chasse death lacks support

Mayor Tom Potter’s statement on September 25th regarding the death of James Chasse was completely lacking any support for the officers involved in the incident and the detectives charged with investigating the death. I’ve beaten this dead horse before and will beat it again but I just don’t understand why it’s so hard to show support for the job of police officers. I especially don’t understand it with the former police chief and current police commissioner.

It could be as simple as a few short statements such as: “I have complete faith in the officers involved in this incident and stand by them one hundred percent as the investigation into the death of James Chasse continues.

Unless presented with compelling facts to suggest otherwise, I believe that the police officers actions were justified and that they will be vindicated upon the completion of the investigation. I also have complete support for the detectives in this case who are tasked with the difficult job of investigating the death while under intense community and media pressure.”

No such statement exists though and we are left with this from the Mayor: “I have asked that the investigation into this incident be as public and transparent as possible, and that the community be
given the information it needs to understand what happened as quickly as possible.

“There are several legal inquiries already underway to determine precisely what occurred during the arrest, including the possibility of a grand jury, and they each need to move forward as quickly as possible.
Any request to conduct a public inquest into this death is a legal determination that only the District Attorney's Office can make, and we will respect whatever he decides and cooperate fully.

“Just as important to me is that we commit to creating a more effective system for delivering mental health services both before and after someone enters our criminal justice system. This is not an issue just for Portland Police, but rather one that calls for a solution that includes our correctional system, medical and mental health providers. I want to work with others who share these concerns to begin making real changes.”

Doesn’t exactly make you feel loved does it? Oh well. “Keep Portland Weird” and stay safe.

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