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What Happened to James Chasse: 2006-11-19

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Officer involved in Chasse death named in previous brutality lawsuit

from The Portland Tribune, Oct 27, 2006, Updated Nov 21, 2006


On Oct. 26, 2006, the Portland Tribune published a story about two of the Portland police officers involved with the in-custody death of James Chasse Jr.

The headline in the electronic version of the story contained a statement about the previous use of force by Sgt. Kyle Nice, which is not factually supported by any source.

The Portland Tribune regrets the publication of the original headline.

Portland police officer Christopher Humphreys, involved last month in the death of James Chasse Jr., was named in a federal lawsuit alleging police brutality that the city settled for $90,000 earlier this year.

And in instances of use of force, Humphreys is tied for No. 2 within the police bureau since it began collecting those statistics in 2004, according to records obtained by the Portland Tribune.

The city admitted no fault in the settlement. Humphreys and other officers were dismissed from the lawsuit as a condition of the payout.

But one witness to the altercation said in court testimony that the man being arrested was so badly beaten he could only describe him as a “breathing corpse.”

Humphreys has used force more times — 78 — than all but one other Portland cop since late 2004. Another cop involved in the Chasse incident, Sgt. Kyle Nice, has 17 recorded uses of force in that time, which does not make him stand out statistically.

Humphreys also has been the subject of seven Internal Affairs Division complaints — one for each of his years on the force — with two of those cases still open. One of those relates to Chasse. Such complaints and details of the ensuing investigations generally are not considered public records. Nice, a 14-year veteran, has had two such complaints, including the Chasse case.

Like Humphreys, Nice also has had a use-of-force issue that led to a lawsuit.

In the lawsuits against both Humphreys and Nice, people accused them of excessive force, Humphreys for using his baton on a man’s legs, Nice for shooting a man in the left arm.

Police filed criminal charges against both men they were trying to arrest, and juries cleared each of them. They each later filed federal civil lawsuits. A jury found in favor of the city and Nice in the lawsuit filed against them.

Humphreys did not return a phone call or an e-mail seeking comment. Nice is out of town until next week and did not respond to requests for comment.

“Referencing the recent traumatic incident, you surely must recognize the psychological impact it has had on each of these officers,” Nice’s direct supervisor, Lt. Mike Lee, wrote in an e-mail. “With that in mind, I would be surprised if either of them was willing to speak with any reporter at this time.”

These are the stories of lawsuits involving Humphreys and Nice, reconstructed through court and police documents, which include interviews with and sworn testimony from the officers involved.

• • •

The man in the driveway was getting worked over. The neighbors watching had no doubts about that.

Across Southeast 85th Avenue, John Repp watched through his living room window.

What he heard sounded like “Sylvester Stallone in ‘Rocky,’ when … he was punching that cow in the meat market. If you took a stick and hit that, it makes kind of a ‘thwack.’ ”

He heard the man on the ground screaming as police officers punched, kicked and hit him with a metal baton.

“It was terrible to hear,” Repp said, “ … the guy was screaming for his life.”

Like other witnesses, Repp said he could not make out what the officers were telling the man, Chaz Miller. The officers said their commands were consistent — “Stop resisting!” or “Stop moving!” — but to most of the witnesses it just sounded like noise.

Deputy District Attorney Sean Riddell asked one witness, Mark Parkinson, whether Miller was struggling, resisting arrest.

“Now, would you think that Rodney King was struggling when he was just trying to get to his feet?” Parkinson asked in return. “Because what I saw was him laying on the ground being beat. I did not see him struggling. I saw him laying on the ground being beat.”

In the early morning of April 21, 2003, Humphreys drove his patrol car to 3205 S.E. 87th Ave. and met two other officers, Erik Strohmeyer and Lon Sweeney, who were following up on a domestic violence call a few hours earlier.

According to sworn testimony, a drunken boyfriend went into his girlfriend’s house, angry, and stopped her from calling 911. She tried to Mace him, and he pushed her down and took the canister, then sprayed her instead. She called the police after he left.

The boyfriend, whom she described as an olive-complexioned man with dark hair, left with a mutual friend, who was blond and fair-skinned. The mutual friend drove a Ford Ranger pickup.

The officers found the Ranger they were looking for, which they thought would contain the boyfriend, Paul Swayze, according to court testimony.

Strohmeyer and Humphreys knocked on the driver’s-side window. The blond man inside stirred, then laid back down. Strohmeyer knocked harder, announcing himself as a police officer and the man slowly sat up. Only later would they find out that he was Miller, the suspect’s friend.

Riddell asked Humphreys during the criminal trial whether the man in the truck made any gestures or movements.

“I knew he shook his head … kind of a side-to-side, like a no motion, … as we were to get him out of the vehicle,” Humphreys said, according to a transcript.

Strohmeyer threatened to break the window with his metal baton, and the man reached slowly toward the ignition.

Strohmeyer broke the window.

Humphreys moved toward the man in the truck and blasted him in the face with pepper spray.

Miller started the car and drove off. Sweeney maneuvered him to a stop a few blocks away.

Civilian witnesses said they saw Strohmeyer punch Miller in the head several times through the broken driver’s-side window, in between yelling at him to get out of the truck.

Humphreys was on the passenger side, trying to pull Miller out by the legs. He couldn’t get a good grip, so he pulled out his baton and began hitting Miller with it on soft tissue below the waist, as he said he was taught to do. He hit Miller with the baton between 10 and 12 times.

Parkinson, one of the neighbors, said he saw Miller, whom he knew, scramble out of the truck and go down in his driveway on Southeast 85th Avenue near Powell Boulevard at about 4:50 a.m.

Parkinson watched through a window as the officers surrounded Miller. Humphreys pulled out his baton again and swung it against Miller’s legs another 10 to 12 times while other officers wrestled with Miller.

Parkinson said he could see Miller clinging with one arm to the rear axle of a truck in Parkinson’s driveway.

Another officer showed up after Humphreys called for a Taser. Two 50,000-volt shocks with the Taser pressed up against Miller failed to subdue him.

“I mean, it basically had no effect … other than making him fight harder,” Humphreys testified.

The officer with the Taser backed up and fired the weapon’s barbed probes into Miller, and police handcuffed Miller.

“Describe what you saw of Miller’s body,” the public defender asked Repp’s son, David, who had watched from his bedroom window.

“A breathing corpse,” he said.

Police charged Miller with attempting to elude police in a vehicle, attempting to elude police on foot, reckless driving, reckless endangerment and resisting arrest. A jury acquitted him. Miller sued the city last year, and in February the city settled the case before trial, agreeing to pay $32,683.96 in damages and $59,485.24 in attorney’s fees.

• • •

Ron Barton woke up and got shot. That’s pretty much all he knew until people told him later what happened.

Two Portland cops, Nice and another officer, a rookie, thought he pointed a gun at them. Nice shot Barton in the left arm, sure that Barton aimed a shotgun at him in a right-handed pose.

Barton later passed a polygraph examination in which he said he never touched the gun. He also is left-handed. And lab tests showed no atomized blood on the shotgun, which would have been present if he had been holding it when he was shot.

After he was shot, as he collapsed facedown on the floor in his own blood, he cried out repeatedly, “What did I do?”

It was early in the evening, Aug. 24, 1997. Nice, then an officer, was the second cop to respond to a call of “threats” at 13953 S.E. Division St.

Barton lived in apartment No. 4 and had a running dispute with a neighbor over unauthorized cars taking up space in the parking lot.

Barton had been out with a friend, drinking beer. The neighbor’s mother stopped him in the parking lot when he started writing down license plate numbers.

The mother told Barton to watch out, that her son might shoot him. He told her the kid had better finish the job or he’d come looking for her son. When the son heard that, he called the police.

Barton was asleep — door open but screen door shut — on the couch in his living room. There was a phone next to his head. And when Nice and the rookie peered in, in bad light, they saw the stock of a shotgun on the couch nearby, which Barton later said he bought after being burglarized twice. He stuffed it into the couch cushions, safety on, and hadn’t touched it since, he said.

Nice and the rookie knocked “vigorously” on the door, according to police records, announcing themselves as police. Barton started moving.

Both officers believed that Barton wheeled the shotgun toward them. Nice raised his police bureau-issued Glock handgun, and fired it once through the screen door.

There were no civilian witnesses.

Police charged Barton with two counts of recklessly endangering another person. A jury acquitted him. After the civil trial for the lawsuit he filed afterward, the jury ruled for the city.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Commitment often not an option for the mentally ill

from The Oregonian, by Don Colburn


The fraying of Oregon's mental health safety net in the past few years has forced more chronically ill people into crisis situations that play out in hospital emergency rooms, courts and jails.

It also intensifies an already heated debate over civil commitment, the use of a court order to keep a mentally ill person in the hospital against his or her will for up to 180 days.

Civil commitment laws, designed as a buffer between the mental health system and the criminal justice system, date to the 19th century. But their tone has changed sharply over the years.

Oregon law allows involuntary hospitalization only for mentally ill people who pose an immediate danger to themselves or others. But defining "dangerous" is tricky, said Dr. Neil Falk, a psychiatrist and medical director for crisis services at Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, the largest provider of mental health care in Multnomah County. "That's a very subjective term."

Civil commitment of a person who refuses treatment poses a clash between two lofty principles: the right of an individual to be left alone and the societal need to protect people from harm, even from themselves. Lately, the outcome has tilted toward the individual.

"There are a lot of tough issues in mental health, but that one is the most contentious," said Lee Carty, spokeswoman for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C. The controversy reflects a mental health system that is increasingly crisis-driven, she said.

"In the 1960s, we decided to empty the state hospitals," said Phil Chadsey, an attorney who works with Oregon's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "Basically, we put many of the mentally ill on the streets because we didn't fund outpatient services for them. It's a long, sad story."

A recent high-profile case in Portland raises questions about how police deal with people who are mentally ill. James P. Chasse Jr., 42, a man with schizophrenia, died Sept. 17 in police custody. The officers who confronted Chasse said they did not realize he was mentally ill.

In the aftermath, Portland Mayor Tom Potter and Police Chief Rosie Sizer vowed to give all officers training in dealing with the mentally ill. With recent cutbacks in mental health coverage and services, including critical cuts in the past three years, police increasingly find themselves on those front lines.

People see others on the street who are mentally ill and not doing well, and they wonder why the courts don't step in, said Mike Morris, a policy manager for the state Mental Health and Addiction Services division. But civil commitment means taking away someone's liberty even though that person hasn't committed a crime. "That's why it's a tough standard."

"It's always a balancing act," said Dr. Joseph Bloom, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University. Bloom recently studied trends in civil commitment over the past 20 years in Oregon and concluded that it's becoming something of a legal endangered species.

A civil commitment typically begins when doctors or police bring a patient in crisis to a hospital for an emergency "hold" of up to five days. A county investigator looks into whether the person should be released or given a civil commitment hearing before a judge --who can order a psychiatric hospital stay of up to 180 days.

The number of holds in Oregon doubled between 1983 and 2003. But the commitment rate is half what it was 20 years ago, Bloom said.

In other words, fewer people placed on hold are moving to the next stage: a commitment hearing. Theoretically, that might be because they stabilize their lives with no need to stay in a hospital.

Unfortunately, that's not what usually happens, Bloom said.

"When you decrease civil commitments, as we have, you get more people in jail," he said. "We've directed a lot of mentally ill people either into the criminal justice system or onto the streets."

Between 10 percent and 15 percent of people jailed nationwide have a severe mental illness, according to a U.S. Justice Department guide for police published in May. A recent state report in Oregon found estimated that 20 percent of all jail and prison inmates have a mental illness.

"The jails are considered the biggest psychiatric holding areas," said Circuit Judge Lewis Lawrence, who hears most civil commitment cases in Multnomah County.

Fate decided in Room 220

No one commands, "All rise," when Lawrence enters Courtroom 220 in the Multnomah County Courthouse. He wears a white shirt and tie --no black judicial robe --and presides from an ordinary chair across an oval conference table from the patient.

It's here in Room 220 that some of the county's most vexing medical-legal-social interactions play out, in hearings that decide whether someone with a mental disorder should be civilly committed. The informality of the setting is aimed at making the proceedings less intimidating, Lawrence said.

An Oregon Court of Appeals ruling last month shows how hard it is to hospitalize a person against his will, even one who is delusional.

The appeals court overturned the involuntary commitment of a 29-year-old man with schizophrenia, Thomas R. Olsen. Olsen, who reported seeing leprechauns, had been hospitalized repeatedly. He had heard voices since he was 11 years old.

A county investigator concluded that Olsen was "totally unable to assist in any discharge planning or realistic discussion of his future," could not identify his medicines and had not arranged for outpatient care or a place to live.

But at his commitment hearing, Olsen asked to be released, saying he could take care of himself.

Two psychological examiners found Olsen delusional and potentially dangerous to himself. Judge Lawrence agreed and ordered him committed for 180 days.

Olsen appealed, and the Court of Appeals backed him.

"Delusional or eccentric behavior --even behavior that may be inherently risky --is not necessarily sufficient to warrant commitment," concluded Judge Jack Landau, writing for the court. Civil commitment is "not intended to be used as a 'paternalistic vehicle' to 'save people from themselves,' " he said.

Civil commitment "should not be a dumping ground for a failed mental health system," said Lance Perdue, Olsen's lawyer. "The courts are making a statement: You can't just have people locked up because they can't get services."

"There's a real struggle going on right now," Lawrence said, adding that the Olsen case typifies an intensifying dispute. When he started hearing civil commitment cases eight years ago, the Court of Appeals hardly ever overruled him.

That has changed dramatically.

"It has gone from a flood of affirmations to a flood of reversals," said Lawrence, 55, a judge for 22 years. "A lot of mentally ill people are going out on the street. The Court of Appeals believes they are protecting the freedom of the individual. But there's more than liberty at stake here."

A divisive trend

Civil libertarians hail the decades-long trend away from institutionalized care and civil commitment for those who refuse care. They say eccentric, reckless, even threatening behavior --without clear and immediate danger such as knife wielding --is not grounds for taking away someone's freedom and forcing treatment.

Others say the pendulum has swung too far, depriving patients of needed treatment and allowing some, as one psychiatrist put it, "to die with their rights on."

During the fiscal year ending June 30, Multnomah County had about 4,000 emergency holds. Most of those cases were soon dismissed, because the patient got past the immediate crisis or was not deemed sick enough and dangerous enough for a commitment hearing. But 380 reached the hearing stage, and about 300 patients were civilly committed --up slightly from the year before.

"We're seeing sicker people, a lot more (with) drug and alcohol problems and a lot more meth use," said Jean Dentinger, county supervisor for involuntary treatment. Still, nine of 10 hold cases are dropped. "That doesn't mean they don't need treatment," she said. "It means they no longer meet the legal criteria for being forced into treatment."

It's the hospital emergency staff's responsibility to try to link such patients --those who are willing --with help, if it can be found. Help could mean anything from medication or private counseling to a homeless shelter.

A major shift in Oregon commitment law came in 1973, when the standard changed from "unsafe to be at large" or "suffering from neglect, exposure or otherwise" to "dangerous to self or others." During the 1980s, as urban homelessness grew more visible, a backlash prompted some states --including Washington, but not Oregon --to broaden their laws to cover the "gravely disabled."

Civil commitment remains a crucial tool for people "who are seriously ill but don't have good insight into that fact," OHSU's Bloom said. But it's not enough by itself. "You can have the greatest civil commitment law in the world," he said, "but if you don't have any beds available, it's a train to nowhere."

"All the hospitals are full," said Bob Joondeph, executive director of the Oregon Advocacy Center, an independent group aimed at protecting the rights of the mentally and physically disabled. "It's a clogged system. It's hard to get in and hard to move through in a timely manner."

Multnomah County has lost nearly 200 psychiatric hospital beds in the past five years with the closure of Eastmoreland, Pacific Gateway and Woodland Park hospitals and the Crisis Triage Center at Providence Portland.

Conflicting definitions

One reason civil commitment poses such a dilemma, psychiatrist Falk said, is that the medical and legal definitions of "dangerous" are not the same --and may even conflict.

Consider, he said, a man who is homeless and psychotic, refuses to seek treatment and sleeps outdoors on a Portland sidewalk during a chilly, rainy winter. The man is vulnerable to hypothermia and to others on the street and sometimes acts aggressively toward passers-by. "Medically, you know the man needs treatment," Falk said. "But legally, it's a very high threshold."

The man probably wouldn't meet the legal commitment standard of being dangerous to himself or others, because he says he knows where the homeless shelter is and will go there if things get rough.

The issue has shifted radically, said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, head of psychiatry, law and ethics at Columbia University and a pst president of the American Psychiatric Association. The question used to be mainly medical: How sick is this person? Today, it's more complex; Is this person dangerous?

"It's extremely difficult for family members," Appelbaum said. "I've been called on innumerable occasions by families who say their loved one has left home and is wandering the streets and eating out of dumpsters.

"It's heartbreaking to tell them that under the law, unless the person can be shown to be dangerous, there may not be anything they can do."

Sunday, November 19, 2006


from The Oregonian

Hey, you work for us!

There is a fundamental misunderstanding at the core of many of our government's problems: They think we work for them.

But as any self-employed person will tell you, your boss is everyone who walks through your door. From the office of the president to the officers who killed James P. Chasse Jr., our public-sector employees are completely unaware they are in the service industry.

So to those of you who work in the public sector, be advised: You work for us. Get over it and your job title, and treat us like your next paycheck depends on it. Now get back to work!

Lake Oswego

Oregon's mental care a tarnished model

from The Oregonian, by Michelle Roberts

Over the past three years, thousands of Oregonians have lost access to drop-in centers, counselors and other services created to treat people with mental illnesses before they become a serious danger to themselves or others.

The changes result from the lingering effects of budget cuts by the Legislature and the growing expense of closing the dilapidated Oregon State Hospital. But the consequences can be seen daily on the streets of Portland and other communities, where police increasingly encounter the mentally ill and more of them end up in jails.

Mental health officials say Oregon has taken an about-face, turning a system once praised as a national model for preventive care into one of triage, with police, crisis workers and emergency rooms feeling the brunt.

"We're spending a lot of resources to build new projects for people as they leave the state hospital," said Bob Nikkel, administrator of the state's Office of Mental Health and Addiction Services. "That's well and good, but they're expensive projects. . . . We haven't invested enough in the front end to keep people well."

In response, Nikkel's agency is proposing a 32 percent increase in state mental health spending over the next two years, with the bulk of the new money focused on community programs that have been squeezed.

The death last month of a 42-year-old man with schizophrenia who was fatally injured by Portland police during a street arrest has again placed the condition of Oregon's mentally ill population in the public eye.

James P. Chasse Jr. lived in subsidized downtown housing and had access to medication and professional help. As such, he was better off than many low-income Oregonians who are not so ill as to require hospitalization but instead depend on the web of state-funded mental health services provided in local communities.

The shrinkage in the system dates to 2003, when Oregon lawmakers moved to plug a recession-racked budget. They made it harder to qualify for medical insurance under the Oregon Health Plan, cutting 80,000 low-income residents from the rolls, including an estimated 13,000 who regularly used mental health services.

Separate cuts left some 2,000 mental health workers and drug and alcohol counselors without jobs. And lawmakers eliminated monthly stipends for the poor that many mentally ill people used to buy medicine or pay rent.

In the years since, lawmakers have poured millions back into mental health. But it has not offset all the reductions. Much has been eaten up by the cost of moving patients out of the state hospital, where conditions had become bad enough to prompt a civil rights lawsuit and an ongoing U.S. Justice Department investigation.

By the end of 2009, officials hope to cut the hospital's population of nearly 800 in half by placing patients in community facilities such as group homes or medium-security centers. Now, there are not enough such places to go around.

Troubled in Portland

In Portland, it's unusual to walk through some downtown areas without seeing people with untreated mental illnesses --often complicated by alcohol or drug addiction --slumped in doorways or mumbling at bus stops.

Police encounters with the mentally ill are on the rise, averaging about 40 a week last year in Portland. Calls to Project Respond, which provides mental health specialists to assist officers, are up 40 percent this year, according to Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, the largest provider of mental health services in Multnomah County.

Recent budget restraints forced Cascadia to close four community drop-in centers for people with severe and chronic mental illnesses. Before the closures, the centers on a typical day served up to 300 people debilitated by brain disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

"A lot of the guys now are just walking around downtown," says John Shatokin, 58, a mental health client who attended the drop-in center in Southeast Portland until it closed. "They're not getting pills or going to classes. They're just wandering around and getting sicker."

Jerry Wiseman, 48, is a frequent visitor to the city's last remaining drop-in center at the Royal Palm Hotel in Northwest Portland. He said it's one of the few places he can avoid being hassled by police.

"It's very difficult because it seems like society doesn't want us anywhere else," Wiseman said. "They'd rather not see us and our problems."

Cascadia's medical director, Dr. Maggie Bennington-Davis, said the situation shows the system's fragility.

"When you stop paying for things, you put pressure on every other part of the system --hospital emergency rooms, jails, police, alcohol and drug, homeless shelters," Bennington-Davis said.

The situation can be desperate for those who need help and those trying to provide it.

Recently, a man in his 50s with schizophrenia showed up at a downtown Cascadia clinic asking for medication and a place to sleep, according to agency officials. Two emergency rooms had turned him away, the man said. When told there was nothing to offer him, he stabbed a caseworker in the chest with a pen.

Police arrested him for felony assault, and he ended up in jail --a common outcome.

A recent state report determined that up to 20 percent of all jail and prison inmates in Oregon are mentally ill. That is higher than a national estimate cited in a May publication by the Justice Department, which said 10 percent to 15 percent of people who are jailed have a severe mental illness.

Once a "shining example"

No one believes jails are the place to treat the mentally ill, especially in a state that 10 years ago had established itself as a leader in treating people with brain disorders in community settings.

"Most of us saw Oregon as a shining example in the country for community mental health," said Dr. John Talbott, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland at Baltimore and a nationally recognized expert. "Then we saw you get the stuffing kicked out of you."

Talbott recently delivered a largely critical speech in Portland about Oregon's mental health system, saying the state relies too heavily on long-term hospitalization to treat difficult cases of mental illness.

Community mental health took a cut of $30 million, or 18 percent, three years ago. The effects were widespread. Some mental health clients lost access to medication. Others were evicted from group homes.

Although lawmakers put money back into the system in the current budget, not everything was restored.

The General Assistance Program, which provides stipends for disabled and low-income people who are unable to work, was eliminated. The benefit was only $314 a month, yet it allowed caseworkers to access treatment and housing programs that require mentally ill Oregonians to pay a percentage of their income to remain eligible.

General assistance also helped plug another gap in the system. The chronically mentally ill may apply for and receive federal disability benefits under Social Security. The benefits, usually at least $800 a month, are a lifeline. But qualifying can take as long as three years in Oregon because of a large case backlog.

Mentally ill people depended on the general assistance money to make co-payments and pay rent until federal benefits began. "Now they have nothing," said Leslie Ford, Cascadia's executive director.

Alcohol and drug services for those who work but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid were reduced $3 million at the end of 2003. That put more than 1,000 drug and alcohol counselors out of work and eliminated nearly 10 percent of the state's treatment beds, state officials said.

Experts say that up to half those with mental health problems also are substance abusers. The alcohol and drug services haven't been restored.

The community mental health cuts forced agencies across the state to lay off another 1,000 people who worked directly with mentally ill people. Caseworkers who once managed 30 or 40 clients now handle more than 100.

Also eliminated was the state's Medically Needy Program, which covered more than 9,000 Oregonians who had unusually high medication expenses but didn't qualify for Medicaid. "Several thousand people who lost that program had mental illnesses," said Madeline Olson, a deputy state mental health administrator.

The Oregon Health Plan was designed as a way to expand eligibility for health coverage under Medicaid to the working poor. But the 2003 cuts limited enrollment to 20,000, down from 100,000, and stricter rules make it harder for patients who do qualify to stay on the plan, Ford said.

"If they make one mistake, like missing a premium payment, they're off it," she said.

The collective result of all the cuts, Ford and others say, is that thousands of people with mental illnesses can't get help until they are so sick that a judge commits them to a hospital for their own safety. But with the Oregon State Hospital slated for closure, and alternatives still works in progress, that creates new pressures.

State hospital overcrowded

The Oregon State Hospital houses nearly 700 patients and has long struggled with inadequate staffing, poor physical conditions, overcrowding and violence.

Most residents are forensic patients --those who have been found guilty of crimes except for insanity. Empty beds for civil commitment patients are virtually nonexistent, which leads to crowding in acute care hospitals and emergency rooms.

Eleven months ago, the Oregon Advocacy Center, a federally financed watchdog group for people with disabilities, sued the state to force a staffing increase and improve safety and quality of care at the hospital.

The Legislature acted quickly. Meeting in emergency session last spring, lawmakers approved $9.2 million from reserves for staff and community placements for patients who could be helped in less-restrictive facilities.

The lawsuit was settled, but scrutiny remains intense. The Justice Department alerted Gov. Ted Kulongoski in June that it would investigate whether patients' constitutional rights were violated at the hospital. Department investigators visited the hospital last week.

Improving conditions at the hospital will help patients. But state officials say they must also create new inpatient and community-based alternatives for current hospital residents and future patients.

The state hired a San Francisco architectural firm last year to assess what to do with the hospital. That led to a bipartisan plan to replace the hospital with four new facilities at a cost of up to $334 million. Decisions about the location, design and financing for the facilities are on the 2007 Legislature's agenda.

Oregon spends large sums on mental health and addiction --$352 million in the current two-year budget, not counting federal dollars. The biggest share, $174 million, goes to community mental health.

The latter sum includes a $40 million increase from the prior budget, but officials say about 40 percent of that is being absorbed by the state hospital transition.

Nikkel's office is asking for a huge increase --$113 million --in the 2007-09 budget submitted to Kulongoski. The bulk of that increase is targeted at community services.

"We can't turn away from the hospital's problems," Nikkel said. "But it's become clear that until we invest state general fund dollars in front-end services, we'll never get ahead of this process."

In 2004, the Governor's Mental Health Task Force issued a "Blueprint for Action" calling for improvements in care for mentally ill Oregonians of all ages. But only two of its 10 proposals have been enacted. One is a parity law, effective next year, which requires private health insurers to provide equal coverage of both mental and physical illness. The other provision suspends rather than terminates Medicaid benefits when someone is jailed.

Parity helps Oregonians with private insurance but does not increase access to care for the poor.

"We need to be directing our resources into the development of community systems that keep people out of hospitals," said Bennington-Davis. "We ought to be paying attention to what works nationwide --everything we know that does has been cut in the last year or so. We're going in the wrong direction."

Kulongoski declined an interview request. But Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who sponsored parity legislation in 2005, said he will push for mental health reforms in the upcoming Legislature.

"The whole system is in need of repair and has been for years," he said. "Parity gave us a foundation and now we've got to build on it. I'm going to predict we're going to make more progress in the next 10 years than we have in the past 75."