Protect and serve isn’t just a motto – The Death of James Chasse

from the Oregonian

Author is Stuart Palmiter an officer in the Northeast Precinct of the Portland Police Bureau.

I have read one too many articles and letters written about the unfortunate death of James Chasse, while he was in the custody of Portland police, by people who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.

I’m a Portland police officer and have been for more than 14 years. And I’ve been a Crisis Intervention Team officer since the program began 12 years ago.

I’ve been called to hundreds of incidents involving mentally ill and suicidal people. I’ve helped save the lives of many people, including six who were attempting to jump off the top decks of the Marquam, Fremont or Interstate bridges. And I’ve helped many people obtain mental health treatment and helped them to cope with their illness.

Here’s what CIT training has done for me: It’s allowed me to talk to and help individuals who are approachable, who are calm and not combative. If I can get close to a person and talk to him — even if I don’t get a response — I can gather the information I need to make a decision about how best to care for him.

But CIT training cannot help with a person who runs away from me or chooses to fight once I catch up with him. When someone is combative, it’s my job to control him with the least risk, to him and to myself. It’s not a contest. It’s not a game. It’s a fight, and the community must understand that there can be only one winner — the police officer. I never choose a fight; the other person does. Whether that person fights because of mental illness, because of drugs or alcohol in his system, or for some other reason, there’s usually just no reasonable way to know at the time of the fight — as in the Chasse incident.

Consider a few statistics: From 2000 through the first six months of 2006, Portland police made 242,921 arrests. We also placed an additional 11,903 people on mental health holds. During that time, we had two in-custody deaths.

I know of no officer who doesn’t regret those deaths. Each is a tragedy. Each impacts everyone involved in ways incomprehensible to those who haven’t experienced death first hand. But those statistics put the lie to the claims of some people that Portland police disregard the safety and well-being of those we have in our custody, including the mentally ill.

I’m human, as are my brother and sister officers. We do our jobs to the best of our abilities. And officers of the Portland Police Bureau care about Portland’s citizens in a way those citizens may be proud of and confident that we will always try to improve.

We truly are here to protect and serve.