Reversal of police suspension in James Chasse arbitration sends wrong message

Guest column by Jenny Westberg, published in The Oregonian, July 18, 2012

An arbitrator’s decision last week to overturn 80-hour suspensions against Portland police officers involved in the 2006 death of James Chasse will further erode community confidence in the police, particularly among those affected by mental illness.

Although the police union considers the ruling vindication, I believe most Portlanders are convinced that the police haven’t learned a thing.

When Christopher Humphreys, Kyle Nice and Bret Burton (who was working for the Multonomah County Sheriff’s office) chased, kicked, punched and used a Taser on Chasse, who was not committing any crime and who was crying out for mercy; when police leadership coolly justified their unconscionable, lethal acts; when city leadership continues to treat the involved officers like adorable but frisky pets; when every move to discipline any officer is defeated, our disbelief in justice expands.

Chasse did not go gently. He was not another unknown vagrant passing through. He was a loved member of a community — our community. His many friends stood vigil and waited for some truth to emerge. Nearly six years have passed, and we’re still waiting. And wasted time has a cost.

First the city and the county fought the civil suit — in the media, in court, in council hallways, in public meetings, in legal documents, on street corners and at cocktail parties — although both the city and county eventually settled the suit with Chasse’s family. Cops fought too; their lawyers fought; their apologists fought; their union fought; their public relations reps fought; all on behalf of those who made Chasse’s last moments a nightmare of pain and fear. And, as usual, they won.

They won in the courts. They won at City Hall. They won at the contract negotiating table. They won with government policy writers. They won with commanding officers. And now they have won with an employment law arbitrator.

But they lost a battle they don’t understand in the area between right and wrong. They kept their jobs, but they lost their honor, lost hearts and minds, lost respect and trust.

Mayor Sam Adams and Police Chief Mike Reese reframed the problem. They acknowledged mistakes and made quick apologies. They invited the community to speak at City Council meetings and in the backrooms of City Hall. They listened attentively to their constituents. They met with community leaders. They promised things would change.

And they have changed. Only one person, Brad Lee Morgan, shot dead while pondering suicide, has been killed by the Portland police so far this year. The statistical turnaround deserves acknowledgement. But how do we heap laurels so long as any of these men are Portland police officers?

Of course, Chasse’s death in custody was not due to his mental illness, nor were his ribs broken by the state and county mental health system. However, part of Chasse’s ongoing legacy is an improved system of care for people with mental illness who live in our community. But the changes — some of which were forced by court judgments — are an insufficient patchwork. Moreover, they are not changes to the police union contract with the city. This has given us neither transparency nor justice.

Yes: Changes were made, positive changes that better protect citizens with mental illness. But changes aren’t justice. And if one can measure the success of a community by how it communicates with its most vulnerable people, then the changes that have been made don’t go far enough.

Jenny Westberg is a board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland.