Surprising career change for former Wheeler County sheriff

Eds. Note: In 2006 Chris Humphreys beat James Chasse, a man with schizophrenia, to death on the streets of Portand. He was not held accountable by the Portland Police Bureau or his colleague officers, or his employers at the City of Portland. After a landmark settlement with the Chasse family and the award-winning documentary film “Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse” exposed the brutality of Humphreys, Sgt. Kyle Nice and deputy Bret Barton, Humphreys filed for “stress” disability leave and eventually quit.

From the East Oregonian, January 17, 2019

After seven years as Wheeler County Sheriff, Chris Humphreys found he could no longer connect with his family. The “gloom” in his head just wouldn’t go away.

“I was never completely there,” he said, cleaning out his office during his last days on the job. “That’s a hard thing to realize when you’re talking to your daughter.”

For Humphreys, the years of shoestring budgets, hand-me-downs and lack of time away from the job led to burnout and a need to find a new career.

“I heard more frustration in my voice than hope,” he said.

A frustrated police officer can be dangerous. In 2006 and 2009, Humphreys faced scrutiny for two separate on-the-job incidents while working for the Portland Police Department, according to The Oregonian.

James P. Chasse, a Portland man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, died of blunt force trauma to the chest after a struggle with Humphreys and two other officers, who did not tell paramedics the extent of force they had used and then failed to insist that an injured Chasse be taken to a hospital. Chasse later died in the back of Humphreys’ patrol car. Portland paid $1.6 million to the Chasse family to settle a civil suit filed against the city.

During a deposition, Humphreys broke down when asked by lawyers representing Chasse’s family why, in the aftermath of the case, he considered resigning from the force.

“Because I don’t know if I can do this job any more, sir,” he said.

Three years after Chasse died, Humphreys shot a 12-year-old girl with a beanbag shotgun at a MAX station. He was temporarily stripped of his gun and badge. Between those two incidents, he spent the better part of three years on stress-related disability leave.

Looking back on that time, and thinking of other officers who make headlines, Humphreys said many law enforcement professionals lack access to mental health care. And the industry has its own stigma against asking for professional help.

“Healthy cops are good cops,” he said. “We don’t hire them cracked.”

Humphreys believes that it’s something about the job that cracks them. And the cracks are formed differently in Wheeler County than in Portland. In the sparsely populated high desert it is the emotionally exhausting work, a lack of institutional resources and an inability to ever be “off the clock” that can wear them down.

In 2012, when Humphreys was still on leave from the Portland Police Department and mired in controversy, he decided to return home to Fossil and compete for one of the few available jobs: sheriff. The sixth-generation Wheeler County native won the election with 453 votes, defeating a slew of write-in candidates.

But heading back home didn’t shield Humphreys from the daily difficulties of law enforcement. Wheeler County’s lack of economic activity and aging population has made emergency response — both professional and volunteer — less reliable. And that trend shows no sign of turning around.

“As much as I want to look at the bright side, it’s really bleak,” he said.

He feels guilty for walking away from an understaffed public safety division, but also felt “cracked” by the job.

That is why his next move is so surprising.

Despite his checkered history interacting with people suffering from mental illness, Humphreys on Jan. 3 started a new job as law enforcement liaison for Community Counseling Solutions. Heppner-based CCS oversees mental health care in 9,500 acres of rural Eastern Oregon, which includes Wheeler County.

Kimberly Lindsay, mental health director for CCS, knows Humphreys’ complicated history. And she thinks he is the best fit for the job.

“Chris is a good guy and I’m well aware of who I hired,” she said. “He has worked hard to be more informed, more educated, and more thoughtful in his responses to the population that we’re working with.”

In his new position, Humphreys will train police on how best to intervene when someone is having a mental health crisis, and Lindsay said he may also respond alongside law enforcement to “difficult and challenging active crisis cases.”

Lindsay is comfortable taking on the criticism and the scrutiny that will come with employing the former police officer in the mental health field.

“I know I’ll be having similar conversations about (him) for the rest of my working career,” she said.

Lindsay has spoken openly with Humphreys many times. She sees personal growth, humility, and a desire to correct errors. She thinks — cracks and all — that Humphreys can do the work.

“Sometimes incidents in our past make us more aware, or thoughtful or sensitive,” she said. “They are life changing … His past is a badge he carries with him for the rest of his life. But he gets to bring that badge with him into conversations, and can use it to pass on some information, some helpfulness … Because of Chris’ past there is something really eloquent to be said here. He’s perfect for the position, if people will let him talk about it.”