The death of James Chasse: Punishing the police won’t help us heal

By Scott Westerman, President of the Portland Police Association, printed in The Oregonian, October 13, 2009

The death of James Chasse is a tragedy, and the members of the Portland Police Association deeply regret this loss of life. James Chasse died because of a terrible series of events, not because of any malice in the actions or hearts of the police officers involved.

Like the Chasse family and its friends, these good and honorable public servants need and deserve our compassion, understanding and support. Unnecessary finger-pointing and unfair portrayals of police officers accomplishes nothing and only makes it more difficult to heal the community and make whatever changes are appropriate to Police Bureau policies and training to try to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again.

Consider the facts: Officer Chris Humphreys and Deputy Bret Burton approached Chasse when there was reasonable suspicion he was urinating in public. When Chasse fled, the officers and Sgt. Kyle Nice pursued him on foot and, following procedure, used force to take him to the ground and into custody when he resisted. This is what every officer is trained to do. When it was discovered that Chasse was in distress, those same officers performed CPR on him as they transported him to the hospital. Unjustly punishing an officer or sergeant for doing exactly what we have been trained to do in this circumstance won’t undo what has happened.

The city auditor has now opened up a bidding process to conduct a formal review of the investigation. We welcome this review. There are some in the community who believe Police Chief Rosie Sizer is whitewashing this case. This type of formal review of the investigation will demonstrate that the investigation was thorough, complete and unbiased. Hopefully, it will also answer the questions of why we are still dealing with this case three years later. Most everyone believes this has dragged on far too long.

The urge to place blame is nearly unavoidable. And it’s easy to try to blame police when the facts are obscured and with the realization that there is, in fact, no one to blame. But unfair blame, doesn’t bring James Chasse back, doesn’t comfort those who grieve his passing and doesn’t lead to greater understanding and trust between police officers and the community.

We can learn from this tragedy only through thoughtful communication and hard work. If the community and police chief desire change, we should look first at the policies we are trained to adhere to, not the officers and sergeants who follow those policies. The Police Bureau has taken the first step, already changing policies, training and more clearly defining expectations for injured prisoners in an effort to prevent another tragedy.

Every day, 900 men and women of the Portland Police Bureau go to work to serve and protect the rest of us. Police work is tough, but it is work we love. Loss of life is always terrible, no matter the circumstances. But in the Chasse case, it is a terrible series of events — not the hearts and actions of the honorable men — that are to blame.

OUR COMMENT – Who the heck does he mean by “us” in the title of this editorial? The persons the author represents? Other police officers? So, “Punishing the police won’t let the police heal?”

This is added insult to injury; the classic stage of serial violence called rationalization. How depressing.