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What Happened to James Chasse: 2008-09-07

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Crisis training takes some cues from Memphis

Portland program requires all street cops to be taught intervention techniques
From the Portland Tribune, September 11 2008

In Memphis, as in Portland, change started with a death.

In Portland, two years ago, the death of 42-year-old schizophrenic James Chasse Jr. at the hands of Portland police prompted public outcry for change in the way officers here deal with people suffering mental illness.

In Memphis, Tenn., a similar death 20 years ago — of a 27-year-old schizophrenic man who was shot by police after he brandished a knife — was the beginning not only of change for the Memphis police department, but for police throughout the country.

The outcry from the Memphis mental health community led the Memphis police department, in partnership with local mental health activists, to form the nation’s first Crisis Intervention Training program. It’s a program similar to one that, after Chasse’s death, Portland police have turned to as their primary response to the local call for change.

But the evolving Portland program is significantly different from the one in Memphis — for the better, according to some, and for the worse, according to others. The critics say the police don’t have adequate backup in their new efforts to help the mentally ill.

Crisis Intervention Training is based on 40 hours of classroom work designed to teach police officers to recognize the signs of mental illness in people they are dealing with, and then to use social worker techniques to defuse situations that might otherwise lead to use of force.

By the end of 2008, Portland will be the largest city in the country to have required all its street officers to be trained in crisis intervention.

Nevertheless, many experts say that Portland’s program, as currently configured, never will achieve the success that Memphis has had.

Memphis effort multipronged

According to Memphis officials, crisis intervention training is only one part of their overall solution, which includes a designated place for police to take people with uncontrolled mental illness, and a partnership between police and local mental health advocacy organizations.

“I believe the Memphis model is the gold standard,” says Bradley Cobb, executive director of the Memphis chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “I believe it is a lifesaver.”

A 2000 analysis of three cities and how their police responded to incidents involving people with mental illness showed that Memphis police rarely ended up arresting subjects with mental illness — only about two out of every 100 they dealt with on the street.

In some cities, as many as 20 percent or 30 percent of people with mental illness are taken to jail. In Memphis, a city comparable in size to Portland, almost all are directed into mental health care rather than the criminal justice system — an outcome mental health and police officials agree is preferable.

Departments in Memphis and Portland do not track police use of force involving people with mental illness. But Memphis police say they’ve got a pretty good idea that their use of force dropped when they instituted crisis intervention.

According to Sam Cochran, who has coordinated the crisis intervention program for Memphis police since its inception, in the first three years after the program was instituted, injuries suffered by police officers during crisis events dropped by more than 80 percent.

“If you’re seeing where officers are not getting hurt, you can pretty much conclude that (citizens) are not getting hurt,” Cochran says.

But the program being developed in Portland differs from the Memphis model in three significant ways.

All Portland street cops trained

In Memphis, not all officers are trained in crisis intervention, and that is intentional. In fact, Cobb says, after early successes, the Memphis chief of police told him he wanted to train all of the city’s officers, and Cobb says he told the chief that wouldn’t be a good idea.

Cobb says that — similar to a police agency’s special tactics team — not all officers are qualified to routinely deal with people suffering mental illness.

“It’s more than just training,” Cobb says. “You can get training anywhere. It depends on the officer. It really has to come from the heart.”

In Memphis, police officers volunteer to be trained in crisis intervention, and then are screened, so only those selected get to wear the crisis intervention badge and are in charge on calls involving people showing signs of uncontrolled mental illness.

Before Chasse’s death, about 250 Portland police had received crisis intervention training, following the Memphis model. Now, Portland is training all its street level officers. And that’s a good idea, says Jason Renaud, a longtime Portland mental health activist and former executive director of the Multnomah County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“They’re wrong,” Renaud says of Memphis. “I’m convinced James Chasse proves that. The people who took crisis intervention in the past (in Portland) were looking for promotions, or were people already sensitized to the issue (of mental illness) and knew it was useful. It’s the folks who think it’s not useful training who benefit the most from it.”

Training helps alliance form

Another difference between crisis intervention training in Memphis and in Portland is the training itself. In Memphis, mental health advocates take part in the classes, from describing their own experiences with police to role-playing.

Cobb says that approach has forced the mental health community and police officers into what has become a strong alliance. “They (mental health activists) feel they have ownership in this program because they help do it,” Cobb says.

Portland is training more than 500 officers. But Liesbeth Gerritsen, a crisis counselor hired by the city to coordinate its crisis intervention training, said that while the city once used mental health advocates in its training, it was unable to find enough advocates to continue participating.

Instead she uses a videotape of interviews with local advocates.

Still, even with an entire street level force trained in crisis intervention, Portland’s police are at a disadvantage in dealing with the mentally ill because of the city’s lack of a dedicated mental health triage facility, according to Cobb and Cochran.

Portland police don’t have a place to take people once they have them in custody — something Cochran, in charge of Memphis’ program for 20 years, calls “a tragedy.”

“You’re undermining crisis intervention training,” he says.

In Memphis, crisis intervention officers are trained to take subjects they suspect of having out-of-control mental illness to a special center set up at the University of Tennessee medical center. The officers are able to drop the subjects off there and leave within minutes, and by agreement with the city, no drop-offs are refused.

In Portland, police officers’ choices are usually jail or one of the local hospital’s overcrowded emergency departments, where the officers cannot leave until physicians have signed off on a transfer.

That process often takes hours, according to police officials. That makes dropping them off at jail a much more appealing alternative, even if officers know people won’t get the help they need.
Assessment center lacking

Multnomah County officials have plans for a mental health crisis and assessment center to be located in Northeast Portland, but details and funding have not yet been worked out. The facility, if funded, could be years away from opening.

Portland police get calls about people whose primary problem appears to be mental illness about 360 times a year, according to bureau statistics.

But Gerritsen says the collapse of the Multnomah County mental health system, from the near bankruptcy of Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, the county’s primary provider of mental health services, to inadequate state funding for psychiatric services for the poor, means there are more Portlanders with untreated mental illness than ever.

Add in the lack of an assessment center, and that means there probably will be another James Chasse event in Portland — despite improved policing.

Still, the new system appears to be working so far. Renaud says he hasn’t heard a complaint about police abusing someone with mental illness in at least six months — and those complaints used to come in regularly, he says.

“Portland has done a terrific job at getting prepared for the next experience,” Renaud says. “Perhaps the next experience has already happened and the crisis intervention training intervened and no one was hurt or killed.”

Some plans turned into action

In the wake of James Chasse Jr.’s death, Mayor Tom Potter launched a Mental Health and Public Safety Initiative, involving regular meetings by a wide variety of mental health providers, county and city officials, and advocates, that produced a 10-page action plan involving 14 separate recommendations.

Two years later, some have become reality and some haven’t.

Based on one recommendation, the Portland Police Bureau and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office have trained officers and law enforcement deputies with special Crisis Intervention Training classes. To address another recommendation, the county has increased its funding for Project Respond, a nonprofit group that specializes in crisis intervention with the mentally ill.

However, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners did not fund mental health screening nurses for the jail booking area, and local jurisdictions have not produced funding for a new mental health coordination and oversight body.

The county is making progress toward setting up a 16-bed mental health crisis and assessment center, so police don’t have to take the mentally ill to jail.

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Julie Frantz and county Community Health Services Director Joanne Fuller chair the committee that was supposed to oversee the implementation of the initiative’s recommendations. The committee has shifted its focus to setting up a “mental health court” intended to divert the mentally ill from the criminal justice system.

Why did James Chasse die?

From the Portland Tribune, September 11 2008

Police tactics and handling of mentally ill still being challenged two years after man’s violent death

James Chasse Jr. was a gentle but troubled soul in his youth. In 1980, he fronted a local band, the Psychedelic Unknowns. Over the next two decades, Chasse descended into schizophrenia until he was taken into police custody on Sept. 17, 2006, and died a short time later.

Almost two years ago, on a late sunny September afternoon, near the corner of Northwest 18th Avenue and Everett Street, a gaunt, 145-pound man behaving erratically came to the attention of Portland Police officers and one Multnomah County sheriff’s deputy.

He ran. They chased him. And then, somehow, he ended up with at least 26 broken and shattered bones in his rib cage and a punctured left lung. Less than two hours after the start of the encounter, after being taken to the jail, then toward the hospital, the man died in the back seat of a police car, at the age of 42.

Known to his many Portland friends as “Jim-Jim,” James Chasse Jr. had been a gentle but troubled kid who became a singer in local punk bands before descending into schizophrenia.

Since his death Sept. 17, 2006, he has become both a symbol and a rallying cry for mental health advocates as well as police critics, while for police he is viewed as yet more evidence that the mentally ill should be cared for by caseworkers, not cops.

But despite the tremendous attention given to Chasse’s death, the investigations, and a lawsuit filed by his family, there’s still uncertainty about how and why James “Jim Jim” Chasse died. His death remains an unsolved whodunit — or maybe, a whatdunit.

Conflicting accounts from those involved, officers contradicting the official story, and attacks on the state medical examiner’s autopsy have hung large question marks over Chasse’s death. And none of the officers who fought with him themselves admit to punching, elbowing, kneeing, kicking, tackling or otherwise making contact with Chasse with anything close to enough force to explain his injuries.

An old friend of Chasse’s, Jason Renaud, a longtime activist and volunteer with the Mental Health Association of Portland, says “the unanswered questions” about Chasse’s death have made his case almost a parable in the mental health community. “Everybody knows the case, every clinician, every patient,” he said.

Adding to the continuing questions, the city of Portland has persuaded a judge to keep secret key public records until the federal lawsuit filed by Chasse’s family either goes to trial next February, or is settled.

While the Portland Police Bureau has released records of a two-week criminal investigation into Chasse’s death, a nearly two-year internal affairs investigation will remain secret. A spokesman for Portland Mayor Tom Potter called that confidentiality a “routine legal step.”

As a result, the main source of new information concerning Chasse’s death has been his family members’ lawsuit and their lawyer, Tom Steenson, a civil-rights specialist with a reputation as a mild-mannered legal pit bull.

Players in Chasse’s death

The family’s disclosures, combined with public records and other information, give a glimpse into the various players who had a role, or may have had a role, in James Chasse’s death. Here are the details on those players:

• Cop No. 1 — Portland Police officer Christopher Humphreys

Several eyewitnesses, including a fellow cop, reported that Portland Police officer Christopher Humphreys tackled Chasse and fell on him. However, Humphreys denied it, saying he pushed Chasse, then flew over him.

Police officials say Humphreys forgot about landing on Chasse due to the excitement, and contend it was mainly that impact — not the ensuing fracas — that led to Chasse’s many broken ribs and other bones.

The State Medical Examiner, Karen Gunson, found that Chasse died of “broad-based blunt force trauma to his chest.” A second autopsy commissioned by the family, concluded that his injuries were from a beating.

• Cop No. 2 — Portland Police Sgt. Kyle Nice

Portland Police Sgt. Kyle Nice joined in the fight to subdue Chasse, who according to police and civilian eyewitnesses, was resisting vigorously. According to a police timeline, Nice called for an ambulance “for an unconscious male” about five minutes after the initial contact with Chasse.

Minutes later, medics from American Medical Response, the company that holds the county contract on emergency ambulance services, arrived.

Although the bureau maintains the medics cleared Chasse to be taken to jail rather than the hospital, Nice, when interviewed by detectives, suggested that the decision was his. He said the medics asked, “Do you want him transported?” and that he replied, “No, we have criminal charges. He’ll be going to jail.”

• Ambulance crew — American Medical Response

AMR’s medics said they found Chasse’s vital signs to be normal. They also reported Chasse fought them as they tried to render aid. Steenson, however, has suggested that there’s no way Chasse could have suffered the injuries documented by the state’s autopsy — let alone the additional ones found by the family’s autopsy — and still have normal vital signs.

The family’s lawsuit accuses the AMR medics of failing to do a complete medical exam.

• Jail medical staff

Although, according to the police bureau, the AMR medics felt Chasse was in good enough shape to go to jail, the nurses at the downtown Multnomah County Detention Center did not agree. Looking at him through the window of a separation cell, they told the officers to take him to the hospital, causing the officers to drive him toward Portland Adventist in outer Southeast Portland.

The lawsuit faults the jail nurses for not attending to Chasse in jail. However, a corrections grand jury later that year laid the blame elsewhere, saying the officers failed to inform the jail nurses of the extent of Chasse’s injuries.

• The system — the county’s mental health system

In the wake of Chasse’s death, Potter and Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer both said the county’s frayed mental health system should bear part of the responsibility.

According to a police report, Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare documents show that on Aug. 17, 2006, and Sept. 8, 2006, Chasse’s mental state was worsening and hospitalization was called for.

On Sept. 15, 2006, two days before Chasse’s death, a caseworker accompanied by a police officer conducted a welfare check at his apartment at Northwest Broadway near West Burnside Street, intending to try to put a mental- health hold on Chasse, only to have Chasse flee when he saw the officer.

• The mayor and the police chief — Potter and Sizer

In the wake of Chasse’s death, Potter said Sizer told him the officers who arrested Chasse were under pressure to reduce public drunkenness and other public antisocial activities. The family’s lawsuit faults a variety of city policies, including what it calls an unwritten one of trying to remove the mentally ill from downtown.

Finally, it claims that Portland city officials should have known that Humphreys had a history of excessive force and misconduct. After Chasse’s death, a Portland Tribune public records request showed that Humphreys was one of the most prolific users of force in the police bureau, with 78 reported incidents in his seven years on the force.

Though critics claim a variety of breakdowns and misconduct led to Chasse’s death, a federal court hearing in June suggested his family’s lawsuit faces tough odds.

There, in the federal courthouse downtown, Steenson, wearing a dark suit, sat alone at one table while his four opposing lawyers —one for the county, two for the city and one for AMR — sat at two others.

Judge Garr King, a former Multnomah County prosecutor, was openly skeptical of some of Steenson’s legal arguments, and ruled against him by directing that the case be split into two. One trial will involve the officers and the other will consider whether city policies were to blame. Legal observers say the ruling will make the case more difficult for the family to win.

Renaud, however, thinks the family has a strong case. “They are very determined,” he said. “They’re not going to settle. So it’s going to be public, and it’s going to be ugly.”

EXTRA - What Happened to James Chasse