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What Happened to James Chasse: UPFRONT Top of the town For every problem, there's a committee

Thursday, October 26, 2006

UPFRONT Top of the town For every problem, there's a committee

from The Oregonian, Anna Griffin

It's getting to be something of a routine in Tom Potter's City Hall: When trouble strikes, form a committee.

Downtown safety. School funding. Gang violence. Immigration. Racial profiling. Government efficiency.

Committees --or in the case of government and Potter's plan to streamline and smarten city bureaus, 20 separate subcommittees --are studying or have studied all those questions during Potter's first two years. Under Mayor McProcess, every crisis, every looming issue, comes with a committee.

He did it again this month in response to the death of James Chasse in police custody. Instead of talking about the injuries Chasse suffered, Potter announced plans to create a committee to study how state, county and local governments treat the mentally ill. He wants this study group, which will include representatives from various government agencies and the private sector, to come up with recommendations for the Oregon Legislature to consider next year.

The response among bloggers, human services types and even some City Hall denizens was a quick and resounding hiss of incredulity and frustration. Leadership, their thinking goes, means taking a stand, not gathering up a group of smart people to tell you what to think.

At the same time, it's not clear what the mayor was supposed to do in the Chasse case.

Yes, as Hizzoner himself has acknowledged, he probably should have come out with a statement on the topic sooner than a week after the fact. Yes, creation of a committee does, at this point, prompt some understandable eye-rolling.

But in a legal sense, the mayor's hands were tied: As he acknowledged last week, he's still not sure just what happened when those Portland officers came upon Chasse, acting disoriented and possibly peeing in the street. For liability reasons, he couldn't even come out and apologize to the family --"Any death while in police custody, regardless of the cause, is something for which I feel the need to apologize" --until after the grand jury finished its work.

So what should Potter have said and done in this particular case?

We're forming a committee to look into that very question.

Oregonian reporters Paige Parker and Arthur Gregg Sulzberger contributed, against their better judgment.

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