From the Oregonian Commentary:
THE DEATH OF JAMES CHASSE JR.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
James Chasse Jr.'s life once held great promise, involved years of anguish about a disease over which he had no control, and ended in a way that no family would ever want and the Portland police officers involved neither anticipated nor desired. His death in police custody has left the Chasse family bereft and angry. And it has left the officers involved devastated over what has now been determined by the state medical examiner and a full investigation to be their unintentional actions that killed him.
Since the grand jury's conclusion, some have suggested that the Police Bureau has been involved in a conspiracy to hide the truth because of inconsistencies in police and eyewitness testimonies. Let me say clearly that there is no such conspiracy or cover-up. The medical examiner has released her full report to the family. The Police Bureau, in connection with the East County Major Crimes Team, conducted a thorough investigation. The grand jury, made up of community members, heard testimony from 30 witnesses. As with all investigations regarding officer-involved shootings or in-custody deaths, the Police Bureau will release copies of the investigation shortly.
But it is not uncommon for officers (and other witnesses) involved in a critical incident to have varying memories of what occurred. They involve split-second actions, and there are always discrepancies.
That said, this incident and the actions of the officers should not be tried in the court of public opinion. It's not constructive for people who say they are outraged by violence to threaten the lives of officers and publish their home addresses on Web sites. It's not constructive to make wide-sweeping assumptions about more than 1,000 people who put on a badge every day. It's not fair or broad-minded for people to draw conclusions about the entire Portland Police Bureau when they admit they have never visited a precinct, spoken to an officer or attended any community-policing event.
What would be productive at this point is a focus on the larger picture. Although this death is a tremendous tragedy, the real debate should focus on how our society is fulfilling its caretaker role for people who suffer from mental illness.
This isn't an attempt to shift the spotlight off the actions of police. It's a natural segue into what is occurring every day on the streets of Portland.
The availability and quality of services to the mentally ill in our community provides an important backdrop to the frequency and quality of their contact with police officers. Daily, officers hear neighborhood livability complaints involving people with mental health issues -- sleeping in doorways, urinating in public, aggressively panhandling. Yet social programs that provide care, prescription management and housing have been slashed.
In the late 1990s, Portland was fortunate to have a Crisis Triage Center, an intake facility where officers brought people in mental crisis and were assured that proper medical treatment would be provided. The CTC, which treated thousands of people each year, was cut in 2001, a victim of ever-decreasing budgets. Now officers must drive people in mental crisis from emergency room to emergency room until one that will accept them can be found. We are grateful for our community partners, such as Project Respond, who often assist officers on the scene with a person in mental crisis. But it's unrealistic to view this as an adequate response.
Community members have a right to be concerned when there are serious allegations made against police officers. That is why there is a review process in place. But my hope is that the larger picture will eventually emerge for people and that we can move forward to address some of the broad issues that this tragedy brought to the forefront.
Rosie M. Sizer is Portland police chief.