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What Happened to James Chasse: State police link ought to be broken

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

State police link ought to be broken

from the Portland Tribune

The role of a police officer and the job of a medical examiner ought to be independent functions. Yet Oregon’s unusual system of funding the state medical examiner’s office through the state police can blur that distinction.

The need for greater separation became apparent this week when state Medical Examiner Karen Gunson issued a finding that the death of James Chasse Jr. was an accident. The ruling has caused an uproar because the 42-year-old Chasse, who suffered from mental illness, apparently died from injuries inflicted by Portland police officers who were trying to subdue and arrest him.

Some people are questioning whether Gunson can be objective in the case. We aren’t prepared to say that Gunson’s findings were faulty. Nor do we question her credentials, integrity or professionalism.

But public perception is an important issue.

Citizens are wondering whether a medical examiner appointed by the superintendent of state police can truly be independent of police. Indeed, the vast majority of other states have different structures that provide for that independence. The models we prefer would place the state medical examiner’s office under the Oregon Supreme Court or a state health and medical commission.

Such a structure might not change the medical examiner’s rulings one iota, but it would remove any perceived conflict of interest when a medical examiner is called upon to investigate a matter involving a law-enforcement colleague.

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