Reopening the Chasse case

By Scott Westerman, Guest opinion published the Oregonian, November 12 2008

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    Scott Westerman is president of the Portland Police Association.

    Westerman killed two possibly demented persons, George Waldum, 71, in 2000, and Patrick Sweany, age 45, in 1996.

    Cop Union Changes – Portland Mercury, November 6 2008

Scott WestermanThe misdirected media attention that originally surrounded the death in police custody of James Chasse — followed now by the posturing of the family’s attorney for financial gain — has caused many issues about the case to be misunderstood or ignored.

The case started with a series of rapidly evolving events. Officers patrolling the street observed a man at a distance that they believed to be urinating in public. They attempted to speak with him, and he fled. They chased him, and he refused to stop. They caught up to him, took him to the ground and apprehended him.

I know there are those who believe that chasing him, or even contacting him, was unnecessary. But I submit that the downtown business owners and residents who have complained, with increasing frequency, of finding urine and excrement in front of their businesses and residences consider it a serious livability issue. The officers were enforcing the law, and James Chasse was fleeing from them.

There are those who believe that crisis intervention training would have prevented the incident from escalating. But I don’t think anyone within the program believes such training was designed for the situation officers faced that day. There was no possible way for the officers to have identified in the instantaneous moment of contact with Chasse that he was suffering from mental illness, let alone have the ability to effectively communicate with him.

With the enhanced audio on a newly released jail video, the Chasse family’s attorney is attempting to cloud the issue of what really happened that day. He’s trying to imply that the apparent discrepancy between informal comments that arresting officers made to jail staff and the taped Internal Affairs interview is somehow significant. No one disputes that Chasse was taken to the ground. Regardless of the manner in which a person is taken to the ground, it’s considered “tackling.”

Having written and reviewed thousands of police reports over the years, I know there’s a difference between the war stories that fellow officers share with each other and the formal, written documents. The Chasse case is no different. The informal discussion between the jail staff and the officers was not a formal interview. Keep in mind that at the time of that conversation none of the officers believed Chasse was seriously injured. He had already been cleared by paramedics prior to being taken to jail.

There’s no doubt that James Chasse’s death was tragic. The circumstances that forced him to the street and the lack of support for him by our degrading mental health system and others in his life are tragic as well. And the effect on the officers involved has been devastating. They didn’t expect Chasse to suffer serious injury. They were merely hoping he would comply with their commands.

The incident was thoroughly investigated — by the district attorney’s office, by a grand jury, by the internal affairs process, and by the use-of-force review board — and yet the officers involved are being portrayed by the family’s attorney and some elements of the media as cold killers and liars, when nothing could be further from the truth. These are men of honor and integrity who were trying to do their jobs, and they feel terrible about the outcome.

While I recognize the pressure for Police Chief Rosie Sizer to evaluate this “new” evidence, I’m disappointed her decision to do so is being characterized by some as an admission that there was wrongdoing. I’m confident that the subsequent reopening of the investigation will find no discrepancy, and the officers will once again be cleared.