Saltzman’s Decision Won’t Make Us Safer

Republished as a guest opinion in The Oregonian, November 13, 2009

Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman‘s decision on November 4 to give two weeks unpaid leave to the two of the three officers who beat James Chasse and then stood by while he died makes a mockery of justice.

His actions don’t make us any safer, or protect us from unprovoked assaults by police officers who think we look or act strange, suspicious, or merely odd.

For three years, we’ve waited patiently for a decision from Saltzman and his predecessors. Until now, they have remained silent in the midst of a legalistic game with the media, the police administration and the police union. And the civil lawsuit from the Chasse family has remained unresolved.

Meanwhile, Saltzman’s failure to act has led many of us to doubt our city officials, and mistrust their processes for defining and servicing justice.

In the next stage of the game, the police union will dispute Saltzman’s slap on the wrist. It will call his decision disrespectful, punitive – a violation of their contract. There will be huddled negotiations behind closed doors. Public relations flacks will hustle to the white board and the media will interpret smoke signals. Someone will lose their temper and say something rash. More nonsense will be presented in the form of press releases.

And the two officers will go duck hunting during their two weeks off.

Police union President Scott Westerman says that Saltzman is proposing discipline for political reasons. He’s right. Saltzman appears to be trying to appease the Portland Police Association by refraining from recommending appropriate and just findings for people who applying deadly force when they deliberately kicked a man in the head and broke nearly all his ribs.

So what options do we, the public, have when an obvious injustice has occurred and our representatives fail us?

We can get angry. And some of us are angry, but anger is an easy step toward despair. We can become apathetic, like slipping beneath ice water as a quick way to erase pain. We can pray for James’ family, and also for the officers who hurt him and failed to help him.

Or we can demand intelligence and accountability and justice from our elected officials. And we must remember who failed to act when leadership was expected.

On September 30 the Mental Health Association of Portland made seven reasonable and inexpensive suggestions to City Council to begin to repair the damage that had been done.

1. Release the full internal investigation about what happened to James Chasse. The police bureau press release is not an internal investigation.

2. Move the three officers involved with the death of James Chasse – Humphreys, Nice and Burton – off patrol duty. We don’t take seriously Westerman’s claim that, given the opportunity any or all officers would also beat and ignore Chasse, but we have no reason to expect Humphreys, Nice and Burton won’t.

3. Make a goal to reducing the use of Tasers on persons with mental illness by 50% per year for the next five years. The use of these tools has escalated to be common practice against persons with mental illness.

4. Reopen the Chief’s Forum, a scheduled open and sincere conversation about police business.

5. Form a joint effort by local governments and local police bureaus with mental health advocates to seek full funding for mental health services from the state legislature. We can all work together toward common goals which protect everyone.

6. Create a sincere, staffed and ongoing public meeting between police senior staff and persons with mental illness. The honest sharing of information builds trust and respect, regardless of differences.

7. Release the Crisis Intervention Team curriculum to public inspection, and release data about police encounters with persons with mental illness. We need to know if the fix has taken hold.

These seven suggestions were ignored. We’ve asked for public explanations, and been denied.

In addition, we call on Council to:

8. Publicly discuss replace the role of a single police commissioner with a commission including all five elected city council-members. We need more hands on deck here, more experience, more intelligence and more aptitude.

9. Expand the powers of the Independent Police Review Division to include initial investigations of police shootings and deaths in custody.

10. Negotiate the new Portland Police Association contract to allow the discipline of officers regardless of civil suits, and compel cooperation with Independent Police Review investigations.

11. Publicly encourage Humphreys, Nice and Burton to voluntarily resign their positions.

The minimum we can do, when presented with injustice, is understand the truth. James Chasse was killed by police officers because he acted strangely and he didn’t comply with their commands.

Until police officers, their administrators and political bosses understand this, too many of us are in constant danger.