Police still shoulder an unfair burden

from the Oregonian, by Robert King, president of the Portland Police Association

One year ago, James Chasse lost his life in police custody. His family was devastated and surely remains so. The lives of the Portland officers involved that night were also changed forever. But as we look back on that sad and tragic event, we have a perspective today no one could have had that night.

That night officers observed a man urinating in public and acting suspiciously, a routine occurrence downtown. As officers approached, the man ran, and they attempted to contain him using a variety of trained and approved methods, including verbal commands, control holds and a Taser. He resisted so fiercely that it took three officers to take him into custody. He bit one officer, causing severe pain.

James Chasse could have stopped and complied, but he didn’t, and the officers had no way of knowing at the time that he suffered from mental illness. The officers used the degree of force they believed was reasonably necessary to bring a suspect into control. And once he was handcuffed, they called for medical assistance.

Every decision from that point forward was guided by advice from medical professionals. Police officers were told by paramedics at the scene and later by nurses at the jail that he was safe to transport. It was officers who noticed Chasse was seriously ill, and it was officers who performed CPR and again summoned paramedics.

A grand jury reviewed extensive evidence on this case and concluded that the officers did not engage in any criminal conduct. The internal review of their actions will surely exonerate the officers of any procedural misconduct as well.

Nevertheless, James Chasse lost his life that day. Why?

By default, Portland’s police have become front-line mental health workers. In 1995 Dammasch Hospital closed, and in the late 1990s the Crisis Triage Center in Portland also closed. Now hospital emergency rooms are the last resource for the mentally ill, and they are ill-equipped to treat them. This larger context is a burden not only to police officers but to the community every day. There are countless people on the street in crisis, and little is done to help them.

Not long after the Chasse incident, Mayor Tom Potter announced that he had found funding for Crisis Intervention Team training for all Portland police officers. Why does funding become available only after tragic events? And, while training is valuable and appreciated, why do the mayor and others assume that more training is the answer and could have averted this outcome? That’s a simplistic view when mentally ill people are clearly at risk alone on the streets, which is where they have been assigned by our mental health system.

Police officers routinely assist people in need, generally without incident. We use force in less than 1 percent of all calls for service, and we make contact with the public 420,000 times a year. When we use force, we use higher levels on people who exhibit higher levels of resistance to police requests. To do otherwise is to risk the safety of officers. A recent report on use of force by Portland police indicated there was nothing to suggest that officers use force inappropriately.

Increased police training is welcome, but it is not enough. The mental health system is broken, and police officers shoulder the additional burden of this failed system. A respectful remembrance of James Chasse’s life and death would be a renewed commitment to repair that system.