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What Happened to James Chasse: 2007-09-16

Thursday, September 20, 2007

One Year Later - What Has the City Learned Since Chasse?

from the Portland Mercury

A year ago this week, James Chasse died in police custody after being beaten, Tasered, and hogtied by officers, and then transported to the county detention center instead of being taken to a hospital.

It shocked the city, given that police had targeted Chasse for merely acting suspiciously. After coming back from vacation almost two weeks after the tragedy, Mayor Tom Potter pledged to form a committee that would seek ways to reform how police interact with people who are mentally ill, and to push for more funding for mental health services.

A year later, some of that has happened. Police officers are now required to undergo crisis intervention training, and according to police spokesman Brian Schmautz, some 25 officers per month have taken the classes since February—that's approximately 200 officers as of this writing. And the 2007 state legislature, as boasted about by Potter in an Oregonian op-ed on the anniversary of Chasse's death, put more money into mental health services in part as a result of lobbying by Potter and Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler.

But a full year of politicians talking about reforms to the mental health system hasn't been enough for those still seeking justice for Chasse's death.

"Jim Chasse didn't die because of his mental health issue," said Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association (MHA) during a Monday, September 17, protest outside of city hall. Instead, Renaud and dozens of other protestors argued, Chasse died because he was beaten by cops.

And that was the message of the day, as carried by numerous signs that read "Protect and Serve does not mean Beat and Kill" and "It's not about a few bad apples, it's about the whole barrel."

In a list of unanswered questions and unresolved concerns delivered to the mayor's office, the Mental Health Association asked repeatedly, "Why is the district attorney in charge of prosecuting police beatings and deaths?" and "Why haven't any police officers ever been charged with using excessive force?"

In other words, what activists are demanding isn't necessarily more funding for mental health, though they welcome it. Instead, they are asking for more accountability for officers who cross the line. The last question in MHA's letter speaks to the concerns of the activists gathered on the city hall sidewalk: "Since when is looking odd a crime?"

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Remembering James Chasse's death

opinion editorial from the Oregonian

A public inquest is still needed, along with a mental health triage center in Portland

Mental health advocates showed Monday that they are determined not to let the death of James P. Chasse Jr. slip into oblivion.

Although Chasse's death isn't truly in danger of being forgotten -- it has already had profound effects on the city and the state -- advocates are right to keep the pressure on at City Hall. They shouldn't let up until Portland has a 24-hour crisis triage center, where officers can take for evaluation people who appear to be mentally ill. Right now, they're taken to hospital emergency rooms, which doesn't do them, or the community, much good. They're just released.

Chasse, a frail musician who was mentally ill, died in police custody on Sept. 17, 2006, after doing, well, what exactly did he do? The main thing, it appears, is that he acted a little strange and ran when police asked him to stop. And when they caught up with him, and an officer tackled or fell on Chasse, he didn't just meekly allow himself to be taken into custody for doing -- what was it again? Nothing. He continued to scream in terror, and fight back as officers kicked, punched and Tasered him.

When Chasse died not quite two hours later, he had 16 broken ribs, a punctured lung and massive internal bleeding. Why paramedics allowed him to be taken to the jail is not clear, or why jail personnel didn't insist he be taken by ambulance to a hospital. Instead, he was taken the slow way around to the hospital, in a police car.

That's among the things that have changed in the year since, however. Officers are now required to obtain a paramedic's approval to take someone in Chasse's situation to the hospital. They're also required to tell medical personnel how much force they used.

The most pivotal change, though, thanks to Mayor Tom Potter, is that Portland is now giving patrol officers 40 hours of crisis intervention training. Although that will not prevent all deaths at police hands, or in police custody, it does teach officers what a frightening place the world is for someone who has a mental illness. And the Oregon Legislature even approved a new requirement that police recruits in the state academy undergo 24 hours of such training.

Thus Chasse's death has had city- and state-shaking consequences. Still, there are many unanswered questions about the incident, in part because the Portland Police Bureau's internal reviews haven't been completed. Another reason is that there has never been a proper public inquest into what happened. Such an inquest is still badly needed.

Every death at police hands or in police custody deserves such illumination. Without light on the subject, questions only multiply and theories orbit indefinitely in the best possible place for them to spin, the dark.

Of the list of people who have died either at police hands or in police custody, there is perhaps no one whose death has sparked more outrage or more changes than Chasse's has.

But that's not the same thing as saying it has sparked enough.

Police still shoulder an unfair burden

from the Oregonian, by Robert King, president of the Portland Police Association

One year ago, James Chasse lost his life in police custody. His family was devastated and surely remains so. The lives of the Portland officers involved that night were also changed forever. But as we look back on that sad and tragic event, we have a perspective today no one could have had that night.

That night officers observed a man urinating in public and acting suspiciously, a routine occurrence downtown. As officers approached, the man ran, and they attempted to contain him using a variety of trained and approved methods, including verbal commands, control holds and a Taser. He resisted so fiercely that it took three officers to take him into custody. He bit one officer, causing severe pain.

James Chasse could have stopped and complied, but he didn't, and the officers had no way of knowing at the time that he suffered from mental illness. The officers used the degree of force they believed was reasonably necessary to bring a suspect into control. And once he was handcuffed, they called for medical assistance.

Every decision from that point forward was guided by advice from medical professionals. Police officers were told by paramedics at the scene and later by nurses at the jail that he was safe to transport. It was officers who noticed Chasse was seriously ill, and it was officers who performed CPR and again summoned paramedics.

A grand jury reviewed extensive evidence on this case and concluded that the officers did not engage in any criminal conduct. The internal review of their actions will surely exonerate the officers of any procedural misconduct as well.

Nevertheless, James Chasse lost his life that day. Why?

By default, Portland's police have become front-line mental health workers. In 1995 Dammasch Hospital closed, and in the late 1990s the Crisis Triage Center in Portland also closed. Now hospital emergency rooms are the last resource for the mentally ill, and they are ill-equipped to treat them. This larger context is a burden not only to police officers but to the community every day. There are countless people on the street in crisis, and little is done to help them.

Not long after the Chasse incident, Mayor Tom Potter announced that he had found funding for Crisis Intervention Team training for all Portland police officers. Why does funding become available only after tragic events? And, while training is valuable and appreciated, why do the mayor and others assume that more training is the answer and could have averted this outcome? That's a simplistic view when mentally ill people are clearly at risk alone on the streets, which is where they have been assigned by our mental health system.

Police officers routinely assist people in need, generally without incident. We use force in less than 1 percent of all calls for service, and we make contact with the public 420,000 times a year. When we use force, we use higher levels on people who exhibit higher levels of resistance to police requests. To do otherwise is to risk the safety of officers. A recent report on use of force by Portland police indicated there was nothing to suggest that officers use force inappropriately.

Increased police training is welcome, but it is not enough. The mental health system is broken, and police officers shoulder the additional burden of this failed system. A respectful remembrance of James Chasse's life and death would be a renewed commitment to repair that system.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Preventing another James Chasse tragedy

by Portland Mayor Tom Potter

It has been a year since James Chasse died while in police custody, a tragedy that moved our community -- to tears, to anger -- like no other in my time as mayor. It is important for the city to acknowledge this tragedy and to take steps to ensure a similar event does not recur in Portland.

I said at the time in my apology to the Chasse family, and to all Portlanders, that I would use this tragedy to improve how our most fragile residents are treated by our police, our jails, our medical professionals and the mental health system. While I know that nothing can ease the anguish and pain the Chasse family feels for the loss of their son, we have made important progress in keeping that commitment.

In the wake of James' death, every Portland police officer is now receiving 40 hours of training in crisis intervention techniques, which will help officers to identify and successfully engage individuals with special needs on the street and to de-escalate situations until mental health professionals can take over. The Police Bureau also has hired a full-time mental health professional to oversee the training, development and implementation of new policies regarding working with people with mental illness.

We have funded additional staff for Project Respond, which has a team dedicated to partnering with officers to respond immediately to crisis situations. This new team also identifies high-risk individuals and provides outreach and monitoring services to them.

Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler and I have lobbied in Salem for increased state funding for programs to help the mentally ill, working closely with Sen. Avel Gordly. Thanks to Gordly and other members of the Oregon Legislature, almost a dozen mental health bills were passed last session, along with an additional $41.3 million in new funding for such needs as training for every police officer in Oregon to respond more effectively to the consumers of mental health services.

Portland police also have changed how they transport injured or sick persons and how they share information with paramedics and jail nurses. Officers no longer transport people who have been engaged in a prolonged physical struggle or are seriously injured, unconscious, suffering a seizure or extremely drunk unless a paramedic on the scene approves it.

Chief Rosie Sizer is changing the bureau's use-of force policy to reduce the amount of force used when arresting or taking someone into custody. Portland officers currently use force in only 5 percent of all arrests, and we are committed to reducing the use of force in a way that provides effective policing and protects residents and officers.

One major gap in the mental health system that has not been filled is the critical need for a mental health crisis triage center where officers can immediately take a mentally ill person for assessment and appropriate treatment. Multnomah County Commissioner Lisa Naito has proposed funding such a center, and I hope her idea receives serious consideration.

These steps will go a long way toward removing the stigma surrounding mental illness and will provide more humane responses on the part of the police and others. Jail cells should never be our only option for people with mental illness.

Ultimately, the issue of how we respond will never be resolved until it is no longer acceptable for anyone in our community who is struggling with mental illness to be left to wander Portland streets instead of receiving the help they so desperately need.

Emotions in police death still raw

from The Oregonian

A protest is planned today to keep alive the memory of James Chasse, a mentally ill man who died a year ago in the custody of Portland police

One year after James P. Chasse Jr. died while in police custody, emotions are still raw.

The grainy cell phone image of the slender 42-year-old man lying cuffed, face-down on the sidewalk as officers, firefighters and paramedics stand by haunts those who say the police beat the schizophrenic man to death.

Police officers, who recoil at that accusation, are frustrated at what they see as an unfair attack on their integrity by people who don't understand the realities of their job. Each year, police encounter thousands of mentally ill people -- some harmless, some violent -- and officers most often resolve those encounters peacefully. Accidents, however, do happen, they say.

But people pushing for police accountability, especially those who knew Chasse, say they suspect a cover-up: A state medical examiner listed Chasse's cause of death as blunt-force trauma to his chest from falling to the pavement or from someone falling on him, not from the kicks and punches dealt by police in an attempt to subdue him. A grand jury exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing the three officers involved. The Police Bureau hasn't completed an internal inquiry into the death.

Protesters plan to stand across the street from Central Precinct starting at 8 a.m. today, then join other activists outside City Hall at 4 p.m.

"If you believe we beat him to death, then you're in a completely different place than if you believe he died because someone fell on him," police spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz said. "And it's very difficult to have a discussion."

In response to a lawsuit claiming excessive use of force, filed by Chasse's family earlier this year, the city attorney's office last month filed a motion to fight the public release of an internal investigation that will determine whether officers violated bureau policy and a training review that could suggest changes to police tactics. Attorneys say they want to protect officers' privacy and that releasing information about tactics could jeopardize public safety.

The legal maneuver disconcerts critics such as Dan Handelman, a spokesman for the citizens group Portland Copwatch.

"They're trying to make an argument that we shouldn't know," Handelman said.

Chasse's death stirred such passion because he wasn't armed or posing a danger to others. What's more, the struggle leading up to Chasse's death happened in one of the swankiest parts of the city, the Pearl District, in front of a restaurant full of people.

Doris Cameron-Minard, past president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Oregon, said the case attracts attention because it encapsulates so many of the problems that police have with the mentally ill.

The following account of what happened is based on official reports and witness statements.

When Officer Christopher Humphreys thought he saw Chasse urinating in the Pearl District the afternoon of Sept. 17, 2006, he assumed he was looking at a drunk or a drug addict. He didn't realize the man was mentally ill.

When officers called out, Chasse flashed a look of terror and ran. The police chased him. Humphreys, who weighed about 100 pounds more than Chasse, later told detectives that he caught up to Chasse and shoved him down. Some witnesses described it as a tackle.

Although the medical examiner later said Chasse probably already had been dealt the fatal blow by then, witnesses and police alike were amazed at how Chasse squirmed with unusual strength.

Two other officers -- Sgt. Kyle Nice and Multnomah County Deputy Brett Burton joined in the fight to subdue Chasse -- kicking, punching and shocking him with a Taser as he screamed and tried to bite them. Then he suddenly went limp.

American Medical Response paramedics who examined Chasse minutes later said he was in good enough shape to go to jail. According to a bystander, Chasse begged paramedics not to leave him.

Officers tied his feet to his hands in a "hog-tie" and drove him to jail. A jail nurse, who looked at Chasse through the window of a holding cell for less than 90 seconds, thought he might be faking a seizure. She told officers he had to go to the hospital. Instead of calling an ambulance, officers took him in their patrol car.

Chasse slumped over in the back seat, and officers pulled over to start giving him chest compressions. He died, one hour and 45 minutes after he encountered officers. He had 16 broken ribs, a punctured lung and massive internal bleeding.

"He was this innocent victim," said Cameron-Minard, describing the significance of the case. "It wasn't just 'He had a gun, he pointed it, and they shot back.' "

Mayor Tom Potter, who also is police commissioner, reacted to Chasse's death by ordering every Portland patrol officer and sergeant to undergo crisis-intervention training, at a cost of $500,000. So far this year, 200 officers, including Multnomah County deputies, have completed the 40-hour course that trains officers to better identify and deal with the mentally ill.

The Legislature passed a law requiring all recruits at the state's police academy to undergo 24 hours of crisis-intervention training.

"There's a trust problem"

Although the new training requirements have garnered widespread praise, some advocates for the mentally ill say a police culture of insensitivity has not changed.

Jason Renaud, a volunteer at the Mental Health Association of Portland and a high school friend of Chasse's, said families of mentally ill people don't feel comfortable calling on Portland police when loved ones need help.

Concern is so widespread that his nonprofit advocacy organization has received about 500 calls and e-mails about Chasse's death in the past year.

"There's a trust problem," Renaud said. Renaud, on the other hand, has respect for the work of many officers.

"My experience is the police department (is made up of) professional people who care a lot and have a difficult job," Renaud said. "The mental health system is in shambles, and they get stuck with it. And while they get stuck with it, it is their job."

Renaud said the response of some members of the bureau to Chasse's death has fueled the lack of trust.

In June, police officers hauled citizen activist Richard Prentice off to a holding cell for posting a flier on the federal courthouse that harshly criticized the three officers involved in Chasse's death. According to a complaint Prentice has filed with the city, two of those officers confronted Prentice in his holding cell.

And in the months after Chasse's death, editorials printed in the police union's newsletter also have undermined trust, Renaud said. One states that to believe Chasse's death was caused by police negligence is "a display of insanity."

The sentiments of union President Robert King have upset Renaud, too.

Last fall, after the Portland Tribune ran a story critical of officers who reported the most use of force, King gave the officers -- including one who was involved in Chasse's death -- Starbucks gift cards as a show of support.

Union supports officers

King said he gave the Starbucks cards to the officers because he thought the article was unfair in that it did not adequately explain why officers sometimes have to use force as part of their jobs.

The union president said the officers involved in Chasse's death followed their training and used the force necessary to stop a man who was flailing violently. They also were deeply affected by his death.

"It was accidental, and it was tragic," King said. "And why people can't understand that is lost on me."

As state support for the mentally ill has receded, police officers increasingly encounter people in mental crisis. Officers used to have the option of delivering people to Dammasch State Hospital in Wilsonville, but it closed in 1995 as part of a national movement to de-institutionalize the mentally ill.

Another option disappeared in 2001 with the shuttering of a 24-hour crisis triage center in Portland where officers could drop off people for medical treatment. Today, officers take people who pose an imminent danger to themselves or others to hospital emergency rooms, which frequently release them within hours.

"What's bothersome is the officers are the ones left to deal with the mentally ill," King said. "The city of Portland, the county of Multnomah and the state of Oregon have abandoned them."

Earlier this summer, officers responded eight times in three weeks to the home of a Southeast Portland woman who was threatening to kill herself. Seven times, they drove her to a local hospital for evaluation. Each time, she was quickly released and they were called to her home again.

Officers collaborated with the head of the bureau's new crisis-intervention-training program and helped get the woman committed to the state mental system.

Liesbeth Gerritsen, the head of the training program, said it's making a difference. She quoted an officer who told her that he'd changed his attitude about a mentally ill man he frequently sees in the field.

"Before, I kind of thought he was a jerk. But now I feel kind of sorry for him," Gerritsen remembers the officer telling her after he completed the course. "For me, as a trainer, that made me really happy."

Police Chief Rosie Sizer, a big supporter of crisis-intervention training, opens each 40-hour course in person, reminding officers that their very presence may intimidate some.

"What we often fail to realize is how much people fear us," Sizer said.

The bureau has instituted other changes: Officers no longer take people who have been in a prolonged struggle to the hospital without a paramedic's approval. They are also required to tell medics about any force applied to a subject, something that wasn't fully communicated in Chasse's case.

Advocates for the mentally ill are still pushing for a 24-hour crisis triage center. Efforts to get money from the Legislature failed, but Multnomah County Commissioner Lisa Naito has proposed using some of the revenue from existing business income taxes to pay for the center.

Hold officers accountable

Copwatch's Handelman said he supports many of the proposals suggested after Chasse's death, such as reopening the triage center and providing more housing for the mentally ill. But he said that none of those measures addresses the reasons Chasse died.

Handelman wants the focus to stay on holding the officers and the justice system accountable.

He said the public doesn't know how aggressively prosecutors questioned witnesses during the grand jury proceedings. They don't know whether police followed their policies and training, and if so, whether those need to be changed.

To learn the answers, Handelman said, the public needs to see the grand jury transcripts and the internal investigative files that the city doesn't want released.

"It's about the transparency of the system and holding the officers accountable and making sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again," Handelman said.

James Chasse Died A Year Ago In Police Custody


Monday is the one-year anniversary of the death of James Chasse, a mentally disabled Portland man who died after being arrested. Kristian Foden-Vencil reports.

Chasse died after being chased and tackled to the ground by Multnomah County Sheriff deputy Bret Burton and Portland Police Officers Christopher Humphery and Kyle Nice.

Chasse was put in jail and was only taken to the hospital after he was unconscious. He died on the way.

Jason Renaud of The Mental Health Association of Portland, says the organization will hand a letter to Mayor Tom Potter this afternoon.

Jason Renaud: “A lot of our supporters and friends have questions about what happened to Jim that really haven’t been answered, by the police or by the mayor’s office. And these questions are persistent and deserve answers.”

Mayor Potter has stressed the need for additional mental health resources, and the police department has expanded its Crisis Intervention Team training and medical transportation policy.