Matters of life or death

Mental health activist Jason Renaud weighs in on the latest shooting by police of unarmed citizens in crisis

By Israel Bayer
Staff Writer – Street Roots – 2 18 2010

Jason Renaud had been an advocate for the rights of people with addiction and mental illness for more than a decade when a 42-year-old named James Chasse was killed at the hands of police officers in 2006. Chasse, who lived with schizophrenia, had been a friend of Renaud’s, and Chasse’s death went beyond the personal tragedy. It brought Renaud’s work with the Mental Health Association of Portland, which he co-founded, into even greater focus toward addressing the actions and oversight of police officers, particularly as they interface with people experiencing mental illness. A police review found that the officers acted within policy. Chasse’s death is now the subject of a federal civil lawsuit brought by Chasse’s family.

Today, in the aftermath of the police shooting of Aaron Campbell and a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who shot him, Renaud is watching a familiar and tragic scenario repeat itself. Last year he declared his candicacy to run against Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman.

Police Chief Rosie Sizer has announced some changes in police policy as a result of Campbell’s death, including bringing mental health workers along on crisis calls, and buying ballistic shields to protect officers when approaching people.

But neither of those efforts address officers’ behavior, how they coordinate their approach to people in crisis and how they’re trained to deal with these situations to ensure that someone doesn’t end up dead.

Israel Bayer: So let’s start with training. With every shooting in the past, regardless of which talking head, the message has basically been, it’s about the training. If you want us to do something different, train us different. So…

Jason Renaud: My problem is that with the training right now is that once a weapon has been seen or reported by a police officer, it’s likely at that point that someone is going to get hurt. That means the officer is trained to take action prior to the weapon being actually produced. It’s alarming because in many cases it’s a preemptive strike.

I.B.: Why don’t they just shoot a person in the knee?

J. R.: Well they’re trained to shoot at the bulk of the body.

I.B.: And why is that?

J.R.: Because they’re trained to kill. I believe the training is to shoot until the threat is no longer a threat.

I.B.: But couldn’t you be trained to shoot someone in the knee and then if a weapon is drawn, specifically in this scenario, a sniper could do his or her job?

J.R.: Aaron Cambell was distraught because his brother had died, and was very emotional. The army that showed up for this call was ready for a bank robber. They acted as if Aaron Cambell was a bank robber, not an emotionally distraught post adolescent.

What we know is the police were told there was a gun in the house, and they then showed up, as if this person was a bank robber. The police can only work with one or two options when they know people are in danger.

The problem I have is that I can no longer recommend that if a person with mental illness is in crisis to call the police. Too often it has turned up tragic. One, people wouldn’t listen to me anymore if I told people this (to call the police). And two, I couldn’t advocate to call the police with a clear conscious.

I.B.: The one thing that SR found very disturbing is the idea that this case resembles in many ways the case of Deontae Keller, a young African American man who was shot in 1996. In both Keller’s and Cambell’s case, the police waited for a very long time before they allowed emergency medical responders to even to see the victim. In Keller’s case, he actually died of a loss of blood due to a gunshot wound nearly an hour after he was shot. Doesn’t it make sense that the police should move in and disarm (if they have a weapon) an individual immediately and then get medical attention?

J.R.: It doesn’t make sense to people like you and me, but clearly very frightened people have written these training manuals. It’s our goal, as mental health advocates is to help police officers to reduce this fear that they commonly share. They’re afraid of us, the citizens that they actually work for. We need to assert management skills, training support and counseling for officers, so that they are not in this constant state of fear.

I.B.: Yeah, but even in a time of war time, isn’t it a responsibility that if an area has been cleared and an enemy combatant has been wounded, but is still alive, it’s a soldiers duty to get that person medical attention? I’m sure this doesn’t always happen, but the idea that a person, a 25-year-old kid in crisis may have bled to death in Portland because of the lack of medical attention and overseen by our own police bureau…

J.R.: This sort of difference in fact is why we need a public inquiry. To my knowledge, there was an ambulance standing by with a trauma team a half a block away before a shot was even fired. They could have been called on at any time. They were not called on until Aaron Campbell was dead. We need a public inquest with an independent perspective, not just from the perspective of the district attorney — a man that works every single day with police officers.

I.B.: So the million dollar question— why hasn’t a single police officer, in multiple different killings, ever been prosecuted by the District Attorney’s office and the city of Portland. I mean, we’re talking about a lot of different circumstances, many of them justified, but many of them questionable. We’re talking about a 100 percent not-guilty rate? That’s impossible.

J.R.: Well, that’s all speculation, lots of speculation. And the reality is no police officer will be prosecuted as long as Mike Shrunk is the District Attorney.

I.B.: So, basically, we’re talking about a good-old-boy club that believes they are above the law — it’s an insider’s game and that is what has led us to this place and time?

J.R.: It’s true. We no longer trust that the district attorney will give us a true and good faith effort to charge a police officer with the use of force. His credibility is shot.

I.B.: And the reason being is that it’s the district attorney’s ability to decide what evidence is presented to the grand jury. Is this correct?

J.R.: That is correct. He can also bring an indictment without a grand jury.

I.B.: With Commissioner Dan Saltzman asking for the grand jury records to be public, will we be able to get at this stuff?

J.R.: No, we won’t. We won’t see the evidence that wasn’t presented, only the evidence that was put forward.

I.B.: How do you feel Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s leadership has been on this?

J.R.: I’m very proud that Dan Saltzman went to the Cambell’s home and sat with her two days after her sons died and spent some good time with her. I believe she felt that Dan and City Hall has been attentive to the families grieving. And I believe he did that without a whole lot of coaxing. He attended the funeral alone and sat and got a big spoonful of it all in front of the minister. He was surrounded by wailing and distressed family members. He was there among many grieving young African Americans.

I.B.: In light of everything that has happened, with all the shake-up at City Hall, with the mayor handing off the police bureau to Saltzman, there seems to be this feeling in many different communities, the homeless community being one of them, especially with the latest push against Sisters Of The Road — that the police are setting their own agendas and there’s literally no oversight of them, even at a bureaucratic level. Has City Hall lost control?

J.R.: I think they are setting their own agendas, but I will say, that’s entirely our fault. We are responsible for civilian oversight of the police. We’re responsible for electing a district attorney. We’re responsible for electing a city auditor who is responsible for overseeing and implementing an independent police oversight body. We’re responsible for electing the mayor and the police commissioner. Those individuals have not been held accountable. It’s a subject that people are extremely apathetic about. So, now they have lost credibility, and the public has lost trust with the idea that things can or will change. To turn things around at this point, will be an extraordinary community organizing project.

I.B.: It’s obvious, and unfortunate that it is tragedy that brings all of our groups together— be it the minority or mental health or homeless communities. So how do we push through this?

J.R.: It’s historically the problem that we just manage these issues from crisis to crisis. One of the responses already from City Hall has been to purchase bulletproof shields to protect officers in these circumstances. There’s no reason any reasonable adult should even respond to this. They are over-equipped to the 10th degree, yet they’re under managed.

I.B.: Let’s talk about the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, how is that going to play out?

J.R.: Outside advocates can get traction in this community because the representatives of civilian oversight have lost credibility. Where does the buck stop? You can look around the room and say, where does it stop? Does it stop with Rosie Sizer? No, there was a no-confidence vote on her leadership by her own officers. Does it stop with Dan Saltzman? No. Here’s a councilmen who never wanted to even be police commissioner. Does it stop with Mayor Sam Adams? No. Here’s a person that ran and was elected mayor and never wanted to be police commissioner either.

I.B.: Again, what’s it going to take to get civilian oversight?

J.R.: It has to do with leadership and at this point that leadership doesn’t exist. People have been saying for years these are the little steps you can do to gain credibility, but honestly, they’ve been ignoring this problem for so long no one believes they are sincere. Our leaders are not crisis driven, but instead, in damage control mode. The question is what are the priorities and what’s going to be done once they are set.

I.B.: This issue right now is obviously hot and emotions are running high. What happens when the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton go home?

J.R.:Deontae Keller — nothing happened. Kendra James — there weren’t any changes. Jose Mejia Poot — all that happened was that two hospitals have closed down and we’ve lost a lot of mental health beds, the family got a little money and a nice burial. James Chasse — not much has happened. But I think what’s happening is cumulative and there’s a pattern. And unfortunately, there’s probably going to be a few more of these events that happen before the people elect someone that is a substantive person that can lead us in the right direction. Sadly, it may still be a few years from now.