The police union is in court-ordered mediation with the City of Portland and the Department of Justice, after challenging their settlement agreement on police reforms.
Meanwhile Police Chief Mike Reese is pushing ahead with hiring for the new Behavioral Health Unit. But critics say Reese’s hiring choices are eroding community confidence.
Bret Burton Hired to Mobile Crisis Unit
Reese recently appointed Bret Burton, for example, as Portland Police Bureau’s first, and for months the only, Mobile Crisis Unit officer. Burton is the former sheriff’s deputy who used his Taser on James Chasse during the September 2006 confrontation that ended with Chasse’s death in police custody.
“We were very surprised that Burton was selected of all the officers taking courses,” says Jason Renaud, co-founder of the Mental Health Association of Portland. The mental health association position is that officers who are responsible in the death of a citizen should not remain in the police force, Renaud said, and the Chasse case raised troubling issues about the officers actions.
“So we asked for his resignation and we asked the city not to hire him.”
Burton was one of three law enforcement officers at the scene of Chasse’s arrest. His employer at the time, Multnomah County, paid $925,000 to Chasse’s family to settle a civil suit. The City of Portland, who employed the other two men, Officer Christopher Humphreys and Sgt. Kyle Nice, paid out $1.6 million to settle the civil suit. An ambulance company, American Medical Response, paid $600,000.
Renaud, who knew Chasse and produced the documentary Alien Boy about his life and death, says the association asked for all three officers to be fired. But the city went on to hire Burton from the county. Last year he appeared in an Australian video, apparently as a PPB spokesperson on Taser use.
Portland Police Bureau spokesman Pete Simpson, said the Behavioral Health Unit will be supervised by a sergeant and a lieutenant, under the command of Capt. Sara Westbrook.
The other two teams are: the Enhanced Crisis Intervention Team and the Service Coordination Team. One full-time officer has been assigned to the Enhanced Crisis Intervention Team as the coordinator and another full-time officer has been assigned to the Service Coordination Team as its coordinator.
Burton was the first to be hired to the Mobile Crisis Unit. Asked whether Burton was considered for a coordinator position, Simpson said he was not, adding that because the mobile crisis unit has just three officers, it doesn’t need a separate coordinator.
“The ECIT has 50 detached officers so a coordinator is needed,” he notes. “Same with SCU, although I don’t have the list of officers, but it’s more than a dozen.”
Renaud says Burton could have chosen the job because his experiences in the Chasse case taught him an important lesson.
“Perhaps he is the person who is most affected by this work and has somehow been transformed. Perhaps he is more conscious of people with mental illness,” Renaud said. “The other thing we will benefit from is that he will spend a lot of time working with professional psychotherapists. The psychotherapists with Project Respond will spend a lot more time talking to Burton, their co-worker, than they will talking to people with mental illness.”
Reese’s Hiring Decisions and Community Relations
Dan Handelman, of Portland Copwatch, said Reese’s track record suggests he doesn’t consider the impact of his personnel decisions on police community relations.
“It’s surprising on the one hand, but it fits the pattern,” he says of Burton’s appointment. “He appointed Capt. [Mark] Kruger, known for dressing up like a Nazi and for violence during protests, to teach tactical teams how to respond in crisis situations.”
Handelman also points to the chief’s decision to appoint Todd Wyatt, who inappropriately touched women colleagues, to supervise sexual assault and human trafficking investigators. Wyatt also violated other use of force and professional conduct rules, according to The Oregonian, and the police review board voted to fire him.
“It just keeps chipping away at community confidence in the police,” Handelman said. “They talk about community policing all the time, but they never think about how the community might react.”
Handelman said a pattern was set early on when Reese appointed Mike Kuykendall, a friend who played in a band with him, to a top administrative position. In doing so he lost the opportunity to hire someone who would expand community confidence in his leadership, Handelman says.
Kuykendall resigned in February in a text message scandal, again involving Kruger. At the same time he also resigned from the board of the Police Activities League, which had just announced it had run out of money and would have to close its youth centers. OSHA recently fined the organization for lax health and safety at the East Portland Youth Center, including failing to deal with asbestos flooring in the girls and staff restrooms.
Seven Years After James Chasse’s Death
The other two officers who were involved in James Chasse’s arrest and subsequent death also are still in law enforcement.
In July 2012, an arbitrator overturned the city’s disciplinary action against both men. They had been given 80-hour suspensions without pay.
Sgt. Kyle Nice was returned to street patrol in East precinct in September 2012. Previously he had been placed in a desk job after an April 2010 road rage incident, where he pulled his weapon and flipped off a motorist.
Officer Chris Humphreys was involved in another controversy in 2009, when he shot a 12-year-old girl in the thigh with a beanbag gun at close range. She was struggling with another officer after being arrested for being on the MAX train. She had been barred from TriMet.
Five Hundred PPB officers staged a demonstration wearing tee-shirts that read, “I am Chris Humphreys.” Humphreys collected disability for job-related stress until November 2010 when he was medically laid off. He then ran for Sheriff in Wheeler County Oregon. His only opposition was a write-in candidate and he was elected in November 2012.
The Department of Justice report found Portland Police had a “pattern and practice” of violating the civil rights of people with mental illness or perceived to have mental illness. It also raised questions about police relationships with communities of color.
The agreement is meant to resolve the Department of Justice finding, by changing policy on use of force and changing how police deal with people in crisis.
But Portland Police Association challenged the reform efforts, saying many provisions are subject to contract negotiations. Now the police union is in court-ordered mediation with the city and the DOJ. The union will have the right to appeal if it disagrees with the outcome. The Albina Ministerial Alliance has a seat at the table, but no power to challenge or appeal the decision.
Judge Michael Simon, who happens to be married to Sen. Suzanne Bonamici, has ordered everyone involved to keep a strict silence about the negotiations.
Jo Ann Hardesty, who represents the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform in the mediations, says the tradeoff is worth it.
“It’s so important for the community to have a seat at this table,” she says. “The Department of Justice believes it represents the people, but they don’t have the deep history of the injustices that go way back in this community.”
The mediation is supposed to be coming to a close with the parties ready to report back to Judge Simon on April 24.
President Obama recently nominated Thomas Perez the attorney who led the investigation for the federal Office of Civil Rights, for Secretary of Labor. His nomination is facing strong opposition, however, from Republicans.
Portland police officer involved in James Chasse case now part of mental health unit
One of the officers who had contact with James P. Chasse Jr. before he died in police custody in 2006 is now part of the Portland Police Bureau’s expanded mobile crisis unit.
Chasse, 42, suffered from schizophrenia and died from blunt force trauma to the chest on Sept. 17, 2006, after officers chased him and knocked him to the ground in the Pearl District. Officer Bret Burton, then a Multnomah County deputy, had used a stun gun on Chasse.
Paramedics came to the scene, but didn’t take Chasse to the hospital. Instead, police drove him to jail, but jail staff refused to book him. Police then drove him in a police cruiser to the hospital, and he died on the way.
Chasse’s death resulted in $3.1 million in settlements by the city of Portland, Multnomah County and American Medical Response to Chasse’s family. It also prompted the Police Bureau in 2007 to require all officers be trained in crisis intervention.
Burton, who was subsequently hired as a Portland officer, now is one of three officers who are paired with Project Respond mental health workers. They connect mentally ill people who have frequent contact with police to local agencies for treatment and help. He doesn’t respond to emergency calls for service.
Portland police expanded the unit from one officer to three this year as part of the pending city settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that Portland police engage in a pattern of excessive force against people suffering from mental illness.
Portland police and Burton didn’t immediately return calls for comment Thursday.
In an interview February with KGW, Burton said the encounter with Chasse was “something I think about every day.”
“It’s definitely something that’s changed my life and changed the way we do police work here in the city,” he said.
Jason Renaud, co-founder of the Mental Health Association of Portland, in the past called for the officers involved in the Chasse case to be fired or resign. He said Thursday he still believes they should have lost their jobs, but he admires Burton.
“I think it’s impressive that he wouldn’t run away from it and instead is using his experience to do more to get involved,” said Renaud, who produced a documentary on Chasse. “We can’t always get what we want. But some times, we find that some things can change.”