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What Happened to James Chasse: Potter plans Chasse death follow-up committee

Friday, October 6, 2006

Potter plans Chasse death follow-up committee

from Portland Tribune

Mayor wants to examine who should care for community's mentally ill

Regardless of what the Multnomah County grand jury decides in the death of James Chasse Jr., Mayor Tom Potter plans to ask the City Council to appoint a committee to study numerous issues related to the in-custody death of the man. Among those issues would be how the police can improve their interactions with mentally ill people and who in the community should be responsible for their care.

“We need to acknowledge that is a much larger issue than just the police,” Potter said.

The mayor said he hopes the committee can look at how other cities are dealing with the mentally ill, calling the lack of adequate treatment a nationwide issue.

“I hope the committee can conduct that kind of survey,” Potter said.

Before he submits the plan to the council, Potter said he also plans to discuss it with other area decision-makers, including Multnomah County Chair-elect Ted Wheeler and State Sen. Avel Gordly, whose son had confrontations with the police in the past.

Potter said statistics show a large number of homeless people in Portland are mentally ill, adding, “The question the community has to ask is, is this a good way to deal with the mentally ill — to let them wander the streets or using the police as last resort?”

Chasse died after a Sept. 17 struggle with police near the intersection of Northwest 13th Avenue and Everett Street. The Oregon State Medical Examiner ruled that he died of “broad-based blunt force trauma to the chest,” including broken ribs that punctured his lungs. Although several witnesses filed complaints with the city accusing the police of using excessive force, the medical examiner ruled the death accidental.

At a Sept. 25 press conference, Chasse’s father said his son had suffered from “an unfortunate mental illness” since his teenager years. He was living in a halfway house near the Pearl District and enjoyed wandering the neighborhood at the time of his death, James Chasse Sr. said.

A grand jury began considering the case on Tuesday. It is scheduled to continue hearing from witnesses until next week. The grand jury will determine whether any laws were broken during the incident.

Although Potter declined to comment on the details of the case, he said Police Chief Rosie Sizer told him the officers who arrested Chasse were under pressure to reduce public drunkenness and other public antisocial activities. The officers had said they suspected Chasse of urinating in a downtown street before they arrested him.

“When I talked to the chief, she said this is sort of an example of what happens when things go beyond what you expect," Potter said. "The fact is, we are trying to clean up the streets. But I want to make sure it is done in a way that still protects people's rights.”

Potter said he was considering expanding the membership of the committee beyond the Portland city limits. He said the mentally ill live throughout the region but gravitate to downtown, in part because of the ease of taking the MAX light rail system to Pioneer Courthouse Square.

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