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What Happened to James Chasse: Citizens get respect for the thin blue line

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Citizens get respect for the thin blue line

from The Oregonian, by Elizabeth Suh

By Elizabeth Suh
They came because they were curious, wanted to be better at their jobs or because it was required. They walked away with a little more sympathy for the men and women responsible for enforcing the law in Portland.

The 20-plus participants in the Portland Police Bureau's 2006 citizen police academy had to pass extensive background checks and devote at least three hours a week, from October through December, to learning the intricacies of police work.

Among lessons police instructors passed along in the nine-week course:

When you're trying to get a guy with a gun to come out of a house peacefully, how about throwing him off his game by asking about the Blazers? Never point a gun at something if you're not willing to see destruction, including your own. And what you see in the media about the police isn't really how things go down.

The goal of the annual academy is to give participants a better understanding and appreciation of police officers and what they do.

"Think how you would live differently if you knew sometime in the next six months, someone was going to try to run you over," Officer Mike Stradley of Portland's Special Emergency Reaction Team said in one class.

Classes mix lecture and practice on such topics as negotiating, appropriate levels of force, shooting a gun and driving a police car. Chief Rosie Sizer made an impression as the first speaker, sharing how she attended graduate school at the University of Iowa intending to get a doctorate in history. Instead, she joined Portland's police force 22 years ago, a period when the bureau would be deluged with 1,500 job applications at a time.

As a new officer, she learned quickly that most crimes revolve around drugs and alcohol. Today she is proud when a woman tells her how excited her daughter is to have a female police chief.

Shooting guns, a first for many participants, was a course highlight. Officer Tracy Chamberlin drilled students on more than two hours' worth of safe-shooting tenets, such as: Always treat a gun as if it's loaded. Be aware of everything your shots could potentially hit. Remember to breathe.

Students nervously put on vests, goggles and earmuffs before receiving Glock 9 mm handguns in the Justice Center's basement shooting range.

"These are real bullets we're shooting?" one participant and first-time shooter asked.

"Shooters ready? Fire!" Bullets tore through paper targets.

"It made me sweat just practicing," another first-timer said. "I was shaking like crazy."

This year's academy began amid raging controversy over James Chasse Jr., who died Sept. 17 after being tackled by police.

Chasse was an "elephant in the room" during the academy, said participant Eliot Smith of Vancouver, a Legacy Health System security guard. Smith, 51, said instructors brushed aside the few questions participants raised about Chasse and other Police Bureau problems by saying the matter was under investigation.

"We didn't get to see any of the warts," he said. "I would have liked it if they had dealt with those issues."

Sherrelle Owens, 30, a Multnomah County social worker, entered the class as a requirement of joining the Citizen Review Committee, a panel that hears community complaints about the police. Now she wishes everyone could participate.

In a video simulation, Owens said she could see how quickly a situation could go from seemingly innocuous to a shootout. Once curious about why officers weren't more friendly, she said she better understands their need for caution in approaching situations.

"Their behavior is different," Owens said, "because you're taught that you're supposed to be in control and in command of the situation at all times."

She said it was illuminating, if unsettling, to learn that officers are trained not just to match a person's level of force but to use the level of force needed to match a person's perceived intentions.

Capt. Eric Hendricks, who leads the training division, said he hopes the academy improves community perceptions and builds relationships.

Smith, the Legacy security guard, said he was inspired by the instructors' passion and idealism. He asked Sgt. Wayne Svilar, a team leader on Portland's hostage-negotiation team, to teach rapport-building to Legacy guards.

"I was heartened by the sincerity of the officers," Smith said. "Heartened and touched."

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