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What Happened to James Chasse: An open letter to the men and women of the Portland Police Bureau

Sunday, January 7, 2007

An open letter to the men and women of the Portland Police Bureau

from Portland Online, press release

On Tuesday (1/30), I (Tom Potter) received a letter from Robert King, president of the Portland Police Association. He expressed a number of very serious concerns. I believe it is important that the members of the Portland Police Bureau hear answers from me directly about the issues Robert raises, and that I share our conversation with our community.

January 31, 2007

Dear Portland Police Bureau Members:

On January 30, 2007, I received a letter from Robert King, president of the Portland Police Association. He told me that in my State of the City speech a few weeks ago, I neglected to thank the men and women of the Portland Police Bureau for your tireless work on behalf of Portlanders. He also said I was eroding the community’s trust in the police by focusing on a single tragedy - James Chasse’s death - and, by acknowledging the need to address community concerns over racial profiling.

I have a different perspective, and I would like to share that perspective with you.

First, I want you to know that I value each of you for both the everyday things you do to protect our community, and for the exceptional acts of valor you are called on to perform. I often remind the community of the Portland Police Bureau’s accomplishments, and did so again at the State of the City. I spoke of our crime rate dropping, and increased community satisfaction with Police services. And I introduced Robert to the crowd.

But I also spoke of the need for additional mental health resources and training for all police officers, to reduce and hopefully eliminate such tragedies as James Chasse’s death. It’s not news to you that the mental health system has deteriorated over time, and as a result basic mental health services, and even society’s “safety nets,” have been greatly eroded. The problems we face ultimately require system-wide solutions, and we are working to make those happen.

As an example, the Triage Center used by Portland Police to help people with mental illnesses closed in 2001, leaving police with fewer choices to provide help. As a result, too often people with mental illness are left to wander Portland ’s streets. The vast majority of these folks at some point will receive help without incident from a member of the Portland Police. But on occasion, these contacts require the use of force. In September, one ended tragically.

My point in discussing this incident during my speech was that I want Portlanders to know the Police Bureau and City have learned from James Chasse’s death, and are doing everything possible to prevent such tragedies from recurring. I believe effective police agencies have strong, positive relationships with community members, relationships built on mutual trust and respect. When issues arise that interfere with building those relationships, the problem must be resolved in order to move community/police collaboration forward. Talking about the problem openly is an important first step in doing that.

When it comes to racial profiling, both the community and police feel they are being treated unfairly. How do we solve this issue if both groups don’t come together to understand the issue, and then work to fix it?

I think it would be a serious error on anybody’s part to suggest that all Portland Police Officers engage in racial profiling, or conversely, to suggest that no racial profiling occurs in Portland. There is a growing body of information – including the Racial Profiling Report compiled by the Portland Police Bureau – that points to a problem, regardless of what you call it. That problem needs to be dealt with openly and honestly. Neither side can fix it by themselves. It can only be fixed by the community and the police learning from each other and working together.

Contrary to Robert’s statements, I AM proud of the members of the Portland Police Bureau. I know how hard you work, and the sacrifices you make to protect our city. However, I do agree with Robert King when he said, “Out of the 400,000 interactions the police have in the community each year, there are bound to be a few that either the police or the community or both wish were handled differently. Learning from these situations is an important part of moving forward.”

As the Commissioner of Police, I will continue to speak out on issues that affect the wellbeing of our community and police members alike. I believe the two groups are inextricably linked together, and we can only be successful when both are successful. I believe in you and your commitment to making Portland the safest city in America.

Thank you and stay safe,

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Tom Potter

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