Mental Health Association issues plea to Portland council

From the Oregonian, September 30 2009

A volunteer with the Mental Health Association of Portland this morning urged the city council to press the Portland police chief to release the full internal inquiry into James P. Chasse Jr.’s death.

“Our organization and thousands of people in Portland believe injustice has prevailed, that a fair hearing on what happened to James Chasse has not occurred,” Jason Renaud told the council.

Renaud’s remarks come about two weeks after the third anniversary of Chasse’s death in police custody on Sept. 17, 2006.

Last week, Chief Rosie Sizer announced that she found that a sergeant was the only one who violated policy in connection with the police arrest of Chasse, by failing to send Chasse to a hospital after police used a Taser stun gun on him. The officers who struggled with Chasse as they tried to take him into custody acted according to bureau policy, the chief found.

Chasse, 42, who suffered from schizophrenia, was knocked to the ground by police who said he ran from them when they approached because they saw him possibly urinating in the street. Chasse suffered 26 breaks to 16 ribs, some of which punctured his left lung. He died from blunt force trauma to the chest. He also suffered 46 separate abrasions or contusions on his body, including six to the head and 19 strikes to the torso. If he had been taken to a hospital right away, he likely would have survived, the state medical examiner testified during a deposition. Instead, he was taken to jail after ambulance medics said his vital signs were normal. The jail refused to book him, and police transported him to a hospital. He died on the way.

“What’s occurred is impunity,” Renaud said this morning. “The message delivered is a brutal beating and death of a person with a mental illness, even one with caregivers, friends, family, a home, a clean record, is acceptable within the Portland Police Bureau….It should be unacceptable to you.”

Renaud also called on the council to take the three officers involved off the street; reduce the use of Tasers on people with mental illness; restart the Chief’s Forum, a bi-monthly meeting between the police chief and community representatives that Sizer discontinued; press the state legislature for increased funding for mental health services; and establish ongoing public meetings between police senior staff and people with mental illness.

Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman had a previously scheduled appointment, and was not present during Renaud’s talk. Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the Office of Human Relations, said she’d work to improve police -community relations.

Mayor Sam Adams responded, telling Renaud, “We thank you for your thoughtful testimony.”

Sgt. Scott Westerman, president of the Portland Police Association, said afterwards that he supports Renaud’s push for more police interaction with mental health advocates, and the release of the internal affairs inquiry, when it’s possible considering the ongoing federal lawsuit against the police by Chasse’s family.

But Westerman said Renaud and others should stop focusing on the three officers who were involved in the Chasse case. “The simple fact is based on our training, and the fact that these officers were found to have acted according to bureau policy, any three officers would have likely had the same outcome.”