Suspension falls short of accountability Chasse deserves

Opinion Editorial from the Mental Health Association of Portland, printed in Street Roots, October 2, 2009

On Sept. 17, the Mental Health Association of Portland delivered a letter to Mayor Sam Adams, Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman and Police Chief Rosie Sizer requesting the release of the internal investigation on the fate of James Chasse on Sept. 17, 2006.

This letter joined a petition signed by more than 300 citizens and a status report of the important events which occurred since James died.

Because the district attorney failed to file charges against the officers who brutally beat James and then stood by while he died, Rosie Sizer’s investigation into whether officers violated bureau rules would decide whether the officers kept their jobs.

We had waited for three years.

On Sept. 23, the Portland Police Bureau distributed a news release about the findings of the internal investigation, a timeline of important events since James died, a list of changes PPB has made made since he died, and PPB efforts intended to resolve apparent problems with their own policy and procedures.

But a news release is not the sum result of an internal investigation. A press release is not what we asked for. We asked for a thorough investigative report of James Chasse’s death in police custody. The bureau’s news release was designed to address the issue of why the internal investigation is three years overdue.

Perhaps it would satisfy an insurance agent or a court clerk, but it is entirely inconclusive to anyone concerned with essential questions about the case and falls pitifully short of substantial answers.

The substantial question is: Are people with mental illness safer now than before James Chasse died?

The answer is: We still don’t know and the police can’t (or won’t) tell us.

The findings recommend Sgt. Kyle Nice’s suspension for an unknown duration because he failed to transport James to a nearby hospital after being Tased.

The results of these specific findings: Whether Sgt. Nice will be suspended is unknown, the duration is unknown, whether he will be paid or not while suspended is unknown, whether his suspension limits his future service is unknown, and the official accountability applies only to the most specific of circumstances.

According to witnesses, Sgt. Nice kicked James in the head while his partner Christopher Humphreys’ knee drops to James’ back caused the fatal injury. Deputy Bret Burton unloaded his Taser into James.

Accountability for the tackling? None.

Accountability for the punches, the kicks, the Taser? None.

Accountability for not informing emergency medical technicians Chasse has been beaten? None.

Accountability for arresting James instead of taking him to the hospital? None.

Accountability for James’ death? None.

Nice may be suspended from service, with or without pay, for an unknown duration of time. But his suspension is a technicality, not a proactive response to what happened to James. The message from the Chief is clear — officers are free to respond with deadly force when someone struggles.

The Bureau and the Portland Police Association — the union for patrol officers — will call the suspension justice and accountability.

Ultimately, the suspension is immaterial to the larger question.

Does punishing Kyle Nice make people with mental illness safer? There is no evidence to show that it does. And we believe it does not.

Rosie, who guards the guards? You do. That’s your job. And you didn’t do it. Not acceptable.

And can we make one thing perfectly clear? Our advocacy is not about the character of police officers. We are not critical of police officers in general. Good police officers are important partners for any community concerned with safety, and we value them as such. We are singularly interested in Kyle Nice, Christopher Humphreys and Bret Burton — the officers who brutally beat James Chasse and did not get him medical attention before he died 100 minutes later.

The bureau’s response to our letter includes a list of policy and procedure changes made since James’ death. The most acclaimed is giving all officers Crisis Intervention Training (CIT). Our organization initially applauded the bureau’s decision to hire a civilian psychologist, provide training for all officers, and shake up a stodgy curriculum.

But since James’ death, the contents of the CIT program became a secret. The curriculum is no longer public record — it’s hidden within a complex civil lawsuit. Data about police encounters with people with mental illness is no longer made available. The CIT advisory committee no longer meets. The Chief’s Forum has been canceled.

Three years later, we don’t have data to show these changes have a positive effect. But imagine this: You’re in a jam. Suddenly your peaceful community is upset and shaken and you need help from someone who is trained and equipped and prepared and supported to take control of a difficult situation; your normally normal neighbor is acting strange; your brother-inlaw is acting crazy; your boyfriend is drunk and out of control.

The question is: Just how long will you pause before calling the police, knowing that Officers Kyle Nice, Christopher Humphrey or Bret Burton might show up and act according to policy?