The Chasse Case: Portland Police need more than time off

Guest opinion by Jason Renaud, from the Oregonian, November 13, 2009

Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman‘s decision to give two weeks of unpaid leave to two of the three officers involved in the violent arrest and subsequent death of James Chasse makes a mockery of justice.

Saltzman’s actions won’t make anyone who looks strange to police officers any safer or protect them from assault.

For three years we’ve waited for a decision from Saltzman and his predecessors. Their inexplicable silence created doubt in our city officials and their processes for defining and servicing justice.

Predictably, the police union will now formally dispute the slap on the officers’ wrist. It will call the decision disrespectful, punitive, a violation of its contract. There will be huddled negotiations behind closed doors.

And the two officers will quietly bide their time and go back to work.

Portland Police Association President Scott Westerman says Saltzman’s proposed discipline is being done for political reasons. He’s right. Saltzman appears to be holding back from what would be a more appropriate and just finding for the officers –men who deliberately kicked a man in the head and broke nearly all his ribs –in order to appease the union.

So what options do we, the public, have when an injustice has occurred? We can get angry, and some of us are angry. We can become apathetic. We can pray for Chasse’s family and for the officers who hurt and failed to help him.

Or we can demand accountability and justice from our elected officials. And we can remember who failed when leadership was required.

On Sept. 30, the Mental Health Association of Portland made seven reasonable and inexpensive suggestions to the City Council to begin to repair the damage done in the Chasse tragedy:

1. Release the full internal investigation about what happened to Chasse.

2. Move the three officers involved in Chasse’s death –Sgt. Kyle Nice, Officer Chris Humphreys and Multnomah County sheriff’s Deputy Bret Burton –off patrol duty.

3. Make a goal of reducing the use of Tasers on people with mental illness by 50 percent per year for the next five years.

4. Reopen the Chief’s Forum.

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.

6. Create a sincere, staffed and ongoing public meeting between police senior staff and people with mental illness.

7. Release the Crisis Intervention Team curriculum to public inspection, and release data about police encounters with people with mental illness.

In addition, we want the council to:

8. Publicly discuss expanding the role of police commissioner to include all five elected city commissioners.

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 police union contract to allow the discipline of officers regardless of civil suits, and compel cooperation with Independent Police Review investigations.

11. Publicly encourage the officers involved to voluntarily resign.

The minimum we can do with injustice is understand the truth. James Chasse was killed by police because he was strange and didn’t comply with their commands.

Until those officers, their administrators and political bosses understand this, too, many of us remain in danger.

Jason Renaud is a board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland and co-producer of “Alien Boy,” a documentary film about what happened to James Chasse.