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What Happened to James Chasse: Inquest method of review outdated, unnecessary and destructive

Monday, October 23, 2006

Inquest method of review outdated, unnecessary and destructive

from The Rap Sheet, by Portland Police Association President Robert J. King

ORS 146.135 defines a public inquest giving a county’s District Attorney the authority to order an inquest and obtain a jury for the purpose of finding the cause and manner of death. The jury is charged with the task of determining who the deceased was, when and where the deceased person came to death, and the cause and manner of death.

In 25 years there have only been three inquests in Multnomah County. In each case, the officers have never been the same. The result of Multnomah County’s most recent inquest was the resignation of a highly respected officer. We believe in transparency, but not when the price involves a sacrifice on the altar of our community’s failure to understand us, or the reality of the work we do. There must be a more constructive way for officers, the public and in this most recent case the family to have a dialogue. We oppose inquests because they devastate the officers involved. We oppose them because they are fundamentally unfair, unnecessary and harmful to the police officers involved.

We do have confidence in the process currently in place. Within this process we believe the rights of all are respected. It is an investigative and review process second-to-none and we voluntarily cooperate in these investigations.

The current process has layer upon layer of review. Initially detectives gather information which is passed directly to the District Attorney. A Grand Jury is convened. It is pure citizen review and we believe in it. Seven citizens review every facet of the case to decide if there should be criminal charges. The involved officers cannot be compelled to testify before the grand jury, but they do because they have nothing to hide.

An internal review follows the criminal review. This in-depth internal review has been recently updated and improved. It begins with a required Internal Affairs interview of anyone who has information about the facets of the case. Once the investigation is complete, the case goes to the officer’s commander who then recommends findings to two newly created boards. The Performance and Use of Force Review Boards both include citizens. Additionally, each case is reviewed by City Attorneys, the Director of Independent Review, representatives from Human Resources, Commanders, Assistant Chiefs, the Chief and our Commissioner, Mayor Tom Potter. If citizens do not agree with allegation findings they can appeal to the Independent Review Division, Citizen Review Committee. The City’s auditor, an independently elected city official, oversees this committee.

We voluntarily cooperate and participate in each process. Along with citizens, we believe in and support transparency. Our process is probably more citizen interactive and responsive than any other I know of.

We expect our actions to be reviews with the purpose of ensuring compliance with all Laws, Bureau Rules and Orders.

We expect that.

We have a problem when, after high profile cases like the recent in custody death, media and single-issue special interest groups request inquests.

The in-custody death of Mr. Chasse is a tragedy and, yes, as the Chief reported, the officers are devastated. But we cannot step on to a playing field where our split second decisions are made political and we are assumed to be guilty and presumed wrong. It is fundamentally unfair. There is no scenario where we would support an inquest. We are responsible for our actions under the law and policies of our Bureau. The current process does get at the truth about what happened without creating a public spectacle or worse, creating a scapegoat.

We can have no confidence in a process that was created over a hundred years ago to determine basic questions such as the identity of the deceased, when and where the death occurred, and the manner and cause of death. These questions have already been answered. A member of the DA’s office said, “the inquest is a clumsy tool that is poorly designed to accomplish public oversight”.

In this case The Oregonian’s Editorial Board demands an inquest with the purpose of placing the blame on officers while ignoring the broader context officers cannot avoid.

There editorial concludes it “should not have happened” which only demonstrates their ignorance to the realities street officers are tasked with responding to. Without knowing all the facts they conclude we need more training and need to be taught to be “smarter, safer and low key”. They conclude by finding fault and insulting all officers by saying “it would be better for everyone-the officers, the community-if the police really knew what to do”. With that as the context and the stage we are expected to walk onto we can never have confidence our actions will be reviewed fairly.

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