Settlement shouldn’t dim outrage over Chasse’s death

Opinion editorial from The Oregonian, August 2, 2010

On a heavenly summer evening last week, Portlanders sat in the City Council chambers, trying to reconcile two realities, one bright and one dark — a police horror story and a stellar tale of a police agency’s transformation.

Both are supported by facts. Yet both are also hard to believe. Four years ago, three officers in the Police Bureau’s transit division — two from Portland and one from Multnomah County — chased a 42-year-old man, after glimpsing him, maybe, urinating in public.

They knocked him down and fell on him, kicked him, stunned him with a Taser and hobbled him, then carried him around by his armpits and slung him into a patrol car, despite his injuries. Their brutal takedown of James P. Chasse Jr. or their brutal way of carrying him — and likely the latter, one medical examiner concluded — punctured his lung.

Only two hours after police first encountered the mentally ill musician, he died in police custody en route to a hospital.

Not much about what happened Sept. 17, 2006, squares with the Portland Police Bureau’s current vision of itself. The bureau can tick off a long list of changes it has made, post-Chasse, from altering foot pursuits and medical transport policies to requiring 40 hours of crisis intervention training for 540 officers in the operations branch.

All of this places Portland ahead of many of its peers. The bureau has even gotten ahead of many of the 27 changes a consultant recommended, discussed Wednesday (after the council signed a $1.6 million out-of-court settlement in a lawsuit brought by Chasse’s family).

The consultant’s report highlighted the difficulties of demanding public accountability when other agencies are involved. Shockingly, for instance, Multnomah County refused to permit its deputy to be interviewed in a timely way, helping to drag out the internal affairs investigation into Chasse’s death for months, even years.

And yet, as the report notes, the Police Bureau could have protested this delay. The bureau should have complained to the mayor, council and public. That the bureau didn’t suggests it had its own reasons for preferring delay.

On a positive note, Chasse’s death sparked a new conversation in Portland about mental illness. It was helpful, productive and also, in many ways, a gigantic distraction. As the Mental Health Association’s Jason Renaud noted Wednesday, Chasse didn’t die because he was mentally ill. He wasn’t homeless, suicidal or bereft of services.

No, he died of broad-based blunt-force trauma to the chest. Police pursued him for no real reason. The transit division, an amalgamation of 14 police agencies, was apparently known at the time for rogue behavior and, in particular, for knocking people down.

Certainly, Portland Police Chief Mike Reese said impressive things last week about the profound effect Chasse’s death has had on the bureau. But it will be up to Reese now to follow through. As for the community’s outrage, we hope it doesn’t disappear too quickly. It ought to smolder.

It ought to spark skepticism, scrutiny and a constant demand that the bureau be the stellar agency it insists, circa 2010, it truly is — and wants to be.