Police vs. mentally ill: time to change the whole approach

EDITORIAL: from The Oregonian – February, 2007

Ten years from now, Portlanders may look back on Sept. 17, 2006, as a turning point. The death of James Philip Chasse Jr. has forced a painful recognition: Even here, in a progressive city with a highly trained police force, police treatment of the mentally ill remains, essentially, a matter of dumb luck.

How a suspect is treated depends on who shows up. If you’re lucky, the officers recognize the symptoms of mental illness, approach calmly, empathize and defuse tense situations. If you’re unlucky, as Chasse and his family were, the officers don’t know what to do. They only know how to confront, chase, knock you down and use command-and-control techniques to capture you.

Chasse, a schizophrenic, had no weapon and posed no threat. Yet officers treated him like a criminal, using overwhelming force and, in the process, crushing his chest, breaking his ribs and puncturing a lung. Although he moaned and groaned, officers, jail and medical personnel somehow failed to give Chasse the proper care, or even to notice that he needed care until it was too late. He died en route to a hospital.

Chasse’s death must be viewed through two lenses. It’s imperative to zoom in and gauge the correctness of the actions of the specific officers involved. It’s also important to step back and use a wider angle to figure out what the bureau as a whole needs to do differently.

That’s what Mayor Tom Potter and Police Chief Rosie Sizer did on Monday, in effect, when they announced their support for universal crisis-intervention training for patrol officers, a breathtakingly ambitious goal. It exceeds even the standard set in Memphis, Tenn., which pioneered the use of such training.

For a dozen years, the Portland Police Bureau has offered this intensive training, too, on a volunteer basis. But Potter and Sizer want to out-Memphis Memphis. They want to turn the bureau into the most advanced and innovative police agency in the nation, steeping both new and veteran patrol officers in the best techniques for working with the mentally ill.

Such training expands officers’ repertoire of skills and makes them far more adept, not only at dealing with people in crisis, but also with the general public. At a price tag of about $500,000 over two years, providing this training could cost less than one out-of-court settlement for excessive use of force.

Yet it isn’t a panacea, of course. Police would still have to defend themselves and the community against armed, suicidal individuals. But mounting evidence suggests that having officers trained and available around the clock to deal with the mentally ill is smarter for a city and safer for police. This training helps officers quell potential violence, pacify people in crises and avoid injuries.

Two demands arise from Chasse’s death, for specific justice and for an institutional transformation. A specific day of reckoning is coming with regard to the officers involved, but if change only begins and ends with them, little will have been accomplished.

Beyond that, though, how Chasse was treated on Sept. 17, 2006, shouldn’t have been a matter of luck. A city that prides itself on practicing community policing should approach the mentally ill gingerly and with good will. That means approaching them with the highest level of skill –as sons and daughters and members, no less than anyone else, of our community.