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?”