New Oregon police officers will have to undergo at least 24 hours of mental illness training, under a bill passed by the Oregon House today with overwhelming support. The bill now heads to the Senate, as Rob Manning reports.
In the last year or so, police have faced increasing criticism for how they deal with people behaving erratically. Perhaps the most widely publicized incident involved a mentally ill man named James Chasse who died nine months ago in police custody. Chasse's aunt happens to be the campaign treasurer for Representative Jerry Krummel.
The Wilsonville Republican read a letter she wrote on the House floor in support of the bill.
Jerry Krummel: "My nephew James P. Chasse, junior, was beaten to death by Portland Police officers last September. He was mentally ill."
The letter goes on to charge Portland Police officers with jumping to conclusions about Chasse. In the letter Krummel read, Chasse's aunt describes a scruffy, quiet man who was misunderstood by police officers.
Jerry Krummel: "Later, the officers said they thought he might have urinated on a street, but did not see him do that, nor did anyone else. They said he might have been on drugs, but an autopsy found no drugs in his system. They reported that he was a homeless person. But he was not."
No one spoke in opposition to the bill to require more mental illness training. But Democrat Jeff Barker took a few minutes to defend the police from the charges in Krummel's letter. Barker is a retired police lieutenant. He disagreed with the characterization that officers "beat Chasse to death" -- and he questioned theories of why the mentally ill man ran from police.
Jeff Barker: "And they also said he was possibly abused by the police before', well he possibly might not have been abused by the police before. That was a tragic death, but you - if you haven't worn the shoes of a cop, and a 140-pound guy, a little, slight guy -- they can fight like a tiger."
Nevertheless, Barker concluded by supporting the bill. It passed 58 to 0, but it won't go as far as some would have liked. For one thing, it applies only to new officers, unlike a policy recently adopted by the City of Portland, to train current officers, too. The House bill also requires just 24 hours of training, while the Portland policy requires 40.
Beckie Child is the president of the Oregon Mental Health Association.
Beckie Child: "It's a pretty complex issue and I think it's a baby-step in the right direction, but when you have to cross the Grand Canyon, and all you're taking is baby-steps, it will take you a very long time to cross that canyon."
Child is not optimistic that the current bill alone will do much to avoid another tragedy, like James Chasse's death. But she says it's better than what's in place now.