Futility lies in trying to contain information in the 21st century

From Coming Up For Air, a monthly column for Street Roots newspaper, February 5, 2010
By Roy Silberstein, president of the board of directors

Left unblamed by the city of Portland’s attorney James Rice in his petition to move Chasse vs. Humphreys is the nonprofit advocacy organization responsible for informing the community about what happened to James Chasse.

The Mental Health Association of Portland spoke out and often about the facts of what happened to James since the day of his death, Sept. 17, 2006. We’re responsible for Rice’s desperately irrational and unprecedented request of Federal Court Judge Garr King to move Chasse v. Humphreys out of state.

James was a person with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, a person with friends, a family and a rich spiritual life. And he was a person beaten to death by those who swore to protect and to serve. His death was brutal, reprehensible and avoidable. As longtime witnesses for persons with mental illness hurt by institutions, we knew the city’s strategy would be misdirection, delay and defiance.

As advocates, we humbly accepted we would lose in court as well as in the administrative processes, politicians would be befuddled by bureaucrats, and legal justice would slip through our fingers.

So we selected a different strategy. We’ve done our best to speak to the truth about what happened to James. Advised by police officers, lawyers and colleagues, we gained an understanding of Portland’s bleak history of disciplining police officers for excessive use of force, of the number of persons with a diagnosis of mental illness killed or badly injured by police officers, and we’ve advocated publicly for changes in how police officers are recruited, trained and disciplined.

We collected every public scrap of information about James Chasse and what happened to him and put it online. And it will remain there.

We talked to the media, to students, to community groups, in church basements and living rooms, and told the story over and over. We told everyone.

We’re also making a feature-length documentary film about what happened to James. It’s called “Alien Boy,” and whether Chasse vs. Humphreys happens at the federal courthouse in Portland or on the steppes of Bhutan, we’ll be there with cameras rolling. We plan to finish filming with the end of this trial, edit the film and seek a buyer for national distribution.

We are proud of the advocacy we’ve done and will teach others to do the same. It’s the 21st century and information can no longer be contained.

Our work is far from over. We will not abide impunity.

There’s no reason to believe what happened to James Chasse will not happen again. The police insist they followed their training by beating Chasse. That training hasn’t been changed.

The police adopted a national model of training for mental health crisis, yet Officer Christopher Humphreys, ironically now himself on disability leave due to a trauma disorder — a mental illness — has used immoderate force in several incidents since his training, including shooting a 12-year-old girl with a lead pellet bag at point-blank range.

Just last weekend, a Portland police officer shot Aaron Campbell in the back with a semiautomatic rifle. Campbell was distraught because of the death of his brother. Because someone thought he might have a gun, he was left without medical attention and died in front of his family and friends who had called for help.

The truth is Chasse v. Humphreys is immaterial to the safety of our community. There’s no vindication for the officers if the family loses. There will be no sense of security or regained trust if the city loses.

Either way the civil trial goes, we all lose.