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What Happened to James Chasse: Ex-chief dares to tell the truth

Friday, February 2, 2007

Ex-chief dares to tell the truth

from The Oregonian

Mayor Tom Potter is a strong advocate for freedom of speech, and lately, he's needed a little of that advocacy for himself. Some officers want him to shut up and salute.

When he opens his mouth about the Portland Police Bureau, apparently, he's just supposed to smile and say something nice. Instead, Potter has a tendency to speak his mind. Recently, in fact, it was a bit unusual during his State of the City address when the mayor highlighted the death of James Philip Chasse Jr. in police custody. In the midst of the usual litany of mayoral boasting, Potter admitted the death of this mentally ill man has shaken our community "in profound ways that cannot and will not be ignored."

Beginning this month, every Portland police officer will start receiving crisis intervention training, Potter announced. And, he said, "I want the Chasse family to know --and our community to know --that real change is happening."

Because Chasse was mentally ill, Potter also used the moment to push for changes in the mental health care system. A committee Potter co-sponsored with state Sens. Avel Gordly and Ben Westlund, and Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler, has recommended hiring more crisis specialists and opening an around-the-clock crisis center.

The improvements involve a $6 million price tag, though. There's not much chance they'll ever be funded, unless the mayor pipes up and acknowledges we have a problem. But the mere mention of Chasse's death during the State of the City outraged some police officers --so much so that Robert King, president of the police union, sent the mayor a stern rebuke.

Maybe someone needs to point out that the improvements Potter is pushing, in addition to helping the community, would help police officers do their jobs. The crisis workers would work with, as Potter said, "officers on the street."

It's true that Potter is quicker and more apt to criticize police than some previous mayors have been. But even more important, when Potter makes a criticism, it stings. It comes from a former police chief --someone presumed to know what he's talking about.

Potter should ignore the rebukes and keep speaking out. Some officers may be confused by what they regard as a former chief's disloyalty, but in urging changes, Potter is upholding the ideal of community policing and pursuing the Portland Police Bureau's best interests.

And, anyway, last we heard, Potter was Portland's mayor, not its Protector and Praiser-in-Chief of police.

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