Two years later, they haven’t forgotten

From the Oregonian, September 16 2008

Mental health – Advocates remember James P. Chasse Jr., who died in police custody

To mark the second anniversary of James P. Chasse Jr.’s death, the Mental Health Association of Portland Tuesday wrote in chalk outside Portland’s Central Precinct the names of a dozen people who were either killed by officers in the region or who died in custody.

The names include six who died in Portland. The others died after confrontations with police or deputies in Silverton, Scappoose, Sandy, Gresham and Clackamas and Washington counties.

Volunteers for the Mental Health Association of Portland make chalk outlines at Central Precinct

Volunteers for the Mental Health Association make chalk outlines at Central Precinct

“Our goal is to remember the people who died and acknowledge that police work is difficult, but we also need to have accountability and trust between the officers and people with mental illness,” said Jason Renaud, a volunteer with the association who also was a friend of Chasse.

While the association praised several steps that have been taken in the past two years to increase services to the mentally ill and improve police training, its members are dismayed that the Portland Police Bureau hasn’t completed its internal inquiry into Chasse’s death on Sept. 17, 2006, nor disciplined any of the three officers involved.

In fact, the bureau has since hired one of them — former Multnomah County sheriff’s Deputy Bret Burton, who was sworn in as a Portland officer on June 14, 2007.

Chasse, 42, who suffered from schizophrenia, died from blunt force trauma to his chest after police struggled to take him into custody in the Pearl District. Police thought Chasse might have been on drugs after they saw him shuffling on a street corner and then possibly urinating behind a tree. When they approached him, police said, Chasse ran. Two Portland officers and the sheriff’s deputy chased him and knocked him to the ground. Chasse suffered multiple rib fractures, some of which punctured his left lung. He had no drugs in his possession.

Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer said the internal investigation to determine whether the officers followed policy was caught in a backlog of internal affairs cases, partly due to inadequate staffing and the need to interview people from multiple agencies. Yet she called the two-year wait “disappointing.” The completed internal investigation is scheduled to be presented to a use-of-force review board in early October.

Sizer said the bureau hired Burton because he passed the department’s “rigorous” hiring standards, but called the matter a personnel decision she couldn’t discuss further.

Officers entering Portland police headquarters Tuesday couldn’t miss the bright blue chalk out front that read, “I will remember James Chasse.”

Sizer said she understood the mental health advocacy group’s desire to keep attention on the case. “We all realize the Chasse incident was enormously painful for just about everyone involved and the community,” the chief said.

Chasse’s death revealed gaps in procedures because no one recognized the significant injuries he had suffered until it was too late. Ambulance paramedics said his vital signs were normal, and a Portland police officer signed for him, declining transport to a hospital. Officer Christopher Humphreys and Burton drove Chasse to the Multnomah County Detention Center. A jail nurse looked through the cell door window and told police the jail would not book Chasse, but did not call for an ambulance.

Portland officers placed him in a patrol car, and he died on the way to Adventist Hospital, after appearing to suffer a seizure and losing consciousness. Police say they were headed to Adventist because that’s the hospital the bureau contracts with for prisoners, but Chasse’s family argues the officers should have taken him to a closer hospital.

The Chasse family filed a wide-ranging federal lawsuit naming the city, the county, the ambulance company, the police chief, the mayor, the officers, paramedics and jail nurses. A trial is scheduled for April. The lawsuit contends that the officers violated Chasse’s civil rights and that the city has a pattern of failing to discipline officers involved in use of deadly force. The suit also demands policy changes to reduce excessive force by officers and provide people in custody with appropriate medical care.

The suit argues that Chasse fell victim to an unwritten city policy by Portland officials of “cleaning up the streets,” or trying to remove “undesirables” from downtown.

Mental health advocates praised the steps that have been taken since Chasse’s death: The City Council spent $250,000 for more Project Respond mental health specialists to respond with police directly to crises. The city approved $500,000 to mandate Crisis Intervention Training for all Portland patrol officers and sergeants.

To date, 557 Portland police sergeants and officers have completed the training, with 55 more scheduled to complete the course by the end of the year. Next year, Crisis Intervention Training will be incorporated into the advanced academy for all recruits, said Liesbeth Gerritsen, a mental health expert who was hired to coordinate the training.

Under a new policy, officers are directed not to transport those seriously injured in patrol cars.
“Since Chasse’s death” Renaud said, “no similar incidents have occurred in Portland. This remains the enduring tribute to James.”

Yet all agree that an important component still missing is the lack of a crisis triage center that would offer round-the-clock psychiatric and medical services. County officials are still working to determine who would run it and how to pay for it.