The death of James P. Chasse Jr.: Why the story won’t go away

By Jenny Westberg, guest column in The Oregonian, May 14, 2010

In her column this week, The Oregonian’s Anna Griffin notes that any time James P. Chasse Jr.‘s name is in the news, she gets the same phone call: “Why won’t this story go away? It’s been four years. He was nobody. Why do you think anyone still cares?”

Those are good questions, and the caller probably speaks for many Portlanders. Each point deserves a response.

“He was nobody.”

What do we know about this “nobody”? James Chasse was a writer, artist, poet and musician. He had many friends and a loving family: a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, a niece. Friends and strangers knew of his gentle spirit. Yes, he happened to have a serious mental illness. He struggled more than most of us. But we also know he put effort into getting well. We know he was not drinking or using drugs. We know he made art and music. We know he touched many lives.

What did Jesse Jackson tell us? “I am somebody.” James Chasse was somebody. He mattered. He was loved. He is still remembered.

“It’s been four years.”

That’s true. And the city should be ashamed. An investigation that should have happened immediately took three years. In fact it was delayed so long that the city must now pay an outside firm to investigate the investigation.

If city government had done its job in the first place, we wouldn’t be dealing with it more than three years later. Taxpayers could have avoided paying lawyers to defend the city, the county and police, racking up billable hours to devise legal strategies that offend the conscience, such as the suggestion that Chasse was responsible for his own death.

If officials had taken immediate and forceful action, we might not have witnessed this week’s city government shakeup, with Mayor Sam Adams removing the Police Bureau from under Commissioner Dan Saltzman and telling Police Chief Rosie Sizer to clean out her desk.

There’s not a single good reason this case needed to last this long, cost millions of dollars and cause immeasurable damage to the public trust.

“Why won’t this story go away?”

Maybe some Portlanders would like to forget about James Chasse. Certainly city leaders would be relieved if the whole thing quietly slipped away. But the case lives on, in part due to the appalling number of insults that kept getting heaped onto the original injury.

When the officers involved in Chasse’s death went undisciplined, it was an insult. When Saltzman announced token disciplinary action, then obediently withdrew it when police objected, it was an insult. When years went by without an investigatory report, it was an insult.

Prior to Chasse’s death, we had heard about other people with mental illness or in crisis who had been killed at the hands of police. Deontae Keller. Richard “Dickie” Dow. Jose Meija Poot. Kendra James. James Jahar Perez. And the deaths didn’t stop. Aaron Campbell was shot in the back and killed on Jan. 29. Jack Dale Collins was shot and killed on March 22.

Tragic occurrences all. But tragedies no longer seen as mere “accidents,” but as “normal,” predictable and all too frequent.

We learned more about the officers involved in Chasse’s death. On Nov. 14, 2009, Officer Chris Humphreys shot a 12-year-old girl with a beanbag gun. On April 7, 2010, Officer Kyle Nice pulled his gun on a civilian in a road-rage incident. Two more insults. As the final Chasse lawsuit approached, city attorneys added another to the pile: They would try to pin Chasse’s death on Chasse himself.

Portland has been battered by these insults. The story won’t go away as long as the wounds keep getting ripped back open.

“Why do you think anyone still cares?”

Unpackaged, this question speaks to injustice, to impunity, to authoritarian rule. It asks the community to ignore unreasonable police brutality. It asks for the issues around mental illness to be ignored, forgotten, for those persons with unsolvable problems to vanish.

The question expresses fear, ignorance, shame and disgrace.

We care about the person and the facts. James Chasse was brutally killed. He did not commit a crime. He was defenseless. He died in fear and agony, in the custody of those we expect to “protect and serve.”

If compassion and facts don’t move us, infuriate us and make us wonder what’s happening to our city, what would it take?

Yes, we still care, because we, like James Chasse, are human beings. He didn’t deserve to die. This must never happen again.

Jenny Westberg is a board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland.