Awaiting the next James Chasse

Guest Column published in The Oregonian by Jason Renaud, board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland

The initial scope of the OIR Group report to the city of Portland reviewing the circumstances surrounding the 2006 death of James Chasse Jr. was to answer one question: Why did then-Police Chief Rosie Sizer take three years to finish an internal investigation about Chasse’s in-custody death?

Outsourcing an investigation of an investigation was hardly routine, but City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade had little choice. In the public mind, Sizer’s dancing in place had raised serious questions. The vast ensuing silence imposed by city and county attorneys made the questions even more prominent and persistent. Was there a cover-up? Were Christopher Humphreys, Kyle Nice and Bret Burton rogue police officers? With changes to training and supervision, would the tragic outcome have been different?

Overall, the OIR Group report is a good and helpful effort. It’s comprehensive. It gives excellent hindsight advice. It represents the diligence we expect after a critical incident. And by accepting many of its recommendations, the city and the Police Bureau have taken a true step forward. This is a welcome change from the long wait that eroded trust and confidence in our Police Bureau and in City Hall.

But the report has sizable omissions. Sizer makes no appearance in the 80-page analysis. Humphreys, Nice and Burton, who injured Chasse and let him die in the back of a patrol car, are nameless throughout. There is barely a mention of Sizer’s abandoned investigation. There is no explanation for the graceless inattention of police Commissioners Tom Potter and Dan Saltzman, who failed repeatedly to intervene and demand accountability.

In May, with a legal settlement approaching, Mayor Sam Adams pressured Sizer into a resignation and yanked the Police Bureau away from Saltzman. Potter is retired. Humphreys and Nice are back on duty. So is Burton, who at the time of the incident was a Multnomah County officer but was hired by Portland before the inquiry was even complete.

For all its merits, the OIR report extends the city’s response to the death of James Chasse. It’s been a response largely cobbled from dehumanization and abstraction. The long silence erased transparency. The delay of justice allowed impunity to gain a foothold. The dehumanization occurred reactively by the officers at the scene. They told witnesses Chasse was homeless. He was not. They said he was a drug dealer. He was not. They said he had urinated on a tree. He had not. They said they knew him. They did not. Why did they do that? To justify their brutal actions, both to aghast onlookers and to themselves.

The abstractions began as city leaders shifted blame to problems with the mental health system. Indeed, repairs are needed. Efforts to fix the system should be led by the state and county. But discussion of the mental health system is an irrelevance and a distraction. Chasse’s diagnosis of schizophrenia was not the cause of his broken bones. His death was a result of the violent actions of three officers, an incident that took just over two hours from first contact to death. Why the change of focus? Because “broken mental health system” is an easy scapegoat. It’s like Chasse himself: difficult to manage, fix or understand. It’s a convenient and absorbent construct, soaking up questions of accountability.

What happened to James Chasse was not the result of poor judgment. It went beyond poor judgment. It was viciousness and thuggery. If not held accountable and, at the least, removed from the force, those very officers, or similarly inclined officers, are apt to repeat the experience.

For the admirable remainder of the police force, en masse, this is a crisis. Identifying the admirable officers with the tiny minority of awful ones stains the force, the city’s politicians and the city itself.

After the district attorney’s decision in October 2006 not to indict the officers, reference to the people involved in Chasse’s death and progress toward individual responsibility ceased. Instead there were additional abstractions. We heard endless discussions of policy, improved police training, better police tools, police procedural reform and additional sensitivity training for police interacting with mentally ill persons. In all this grand discourse, we heard nothing about the three police officers who caused the death.

Today our city still employs these men. It trains and arms them. It provides them with a great power — the use of force. We expect near perfection from them. But there is no expectation of accountability. As recently as July 29, the Portland Police Association underscored this defect, offering Humphreys, Nice and Burton unqualified support and promises of vindication. Then it swiftly directed the blame for Chasse’s death elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, it blamed “the mental health system.”

As long as Portland, like innumerable other American cities, refuses to hold individual officers accountable for unjustified use of force, it doesn’t matter which reforms are claimed, nor does it matter whether they actually occur. The deaths will continue unabated. What happened to James Chasse will happen again, at some point, to someone. It’s a predictable matter of time and opportunity.

Those who care for the welfare of persons diagnosed with mental illness will gather next time. We’ll light candles, sing and cry. We’ll console the family by sharing the best memories, the happiness, the unique character of their lost loved one. And we’ll fight to make certain the truth gets known.