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What Happened to James Chasse: Talk is cheap, and Jim Chasse is dead

Friday, October 13, 2006

Talk is cheap, and Jim Chasse is dead

from Street Roots

James Chasse is dead. He died violently at the hands of Portland police, suffering from a beating severe enough to end his life in the back of a patrol car. Jim is dead, and the language of diplomacy swirls around his passing - talk of committees, grand juries and of "addressing inadequacies in training," as Mayor Tom Potter said. But it's doubtful Jim heard any of these gentle solutions when he received blunt force trauma, broken ribs and a direct Taser hit to his stomach. Shouldn't have acted "oddly," or had to urinate without a bathroom, as the police say he appeared to be doing. Shouldn't have been suffering from schizophrenia either, if he had a choice.

Jim Chasse is dead, and so are many others because of a failure in local policies and beyond. Indeed, the tragedy of mental illness on the streets is widespread, with a trail leading all the way to federal policies against funding social service agencies, the lack of insurance parity for the mentally ill, and an antiquated social mindset that unofficially slots mental health issues in the league with 17th century leprosy.

But Portland and cities like it are on the front lines, and its responsibility there cannot be mitigated by the widespread "inadequacies" of our representatives elsewhere. Excuses just don't cut it anymore.

Officer training for working with people with mental illness has to be hard core. No sessions in an office with a mental health expert is going to prepare anyone for the streets, where dysfunction, injustice and victimization are a part of daily life. Bring in the outreach workers who know what's really happening. Bring in the people who know what it's like to suffer from an imbalance, to have your medications and identification stolen, to be told to "move along" by uniforms, night after night, month after month. Reverse the roles for a night or two, and then see who gets targeted for acting out. Bring in the real story, because if officers can't understand the streets, they can't do their jobs, and they are doomed to failure.

At the same time the entire process for reviewing these incidents must be transparent - no more hiding behind a grand jury. The police union seems to treat an officer's oath as a pledge of sainthood, but cops are human, and should be held accountable. Why aren't officers drug tested after significant, questionable conduct? The Independent Police Review and its Citizens Review Committee, created by Portland in 2001 to conduct police oversight, have never had the independence or authority necessary to effectively review police misconduct. The system is now four years overdue for its scheduled evaluation, and sorely in need of a public review.

Through all of this, City Hall has to lend more than a sympathetic ear and an understanding nod to the crisis at hand. It has to become an advocate for people suffering from mental health issues - an estimated 60 percent of those on the Portland's streets today. It has the choice to put its muscle behind reform at the state and federal level and demand more responsive social and governmental policies. Or it can shrug, shake its head, and commiserate through more committee meetings. We're waiting to see some action.

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