Preventing another James Chasse tragedy

by Portland Mayor Tom Potter

It has been a year since James Chasse died while in police custody, a tragedy that moved our community — to tears, to anger — like no other in my time as mayor. It is important for the city to acknowledge this tragedy and to take steps to ensure a similar event does not recur in Portland.

I said at the time in my apology to the Chasse family, and to all Portlanders, that I would use this tragedy to improve how our most fragile residents are treated by our police, our jails, our medical professionals and the mental health system. While I know that nothing can ease the anguish and pain the Chasse family feels for the loss of their son, we have made important progress in keeping that commitment.

In the wake of James’ death, every Portland police officer is now receiving 40 hours of training in crisis intervention techniques, which will help officers to identify and successfully engage individuals with special needs on the street and to de-escalate situations until mental health professionals can take over. The Police Bureau also has hired a full-time mental health professional to oversee the training, development and implementation of new policies regarding working with people with mental illness.

We have funded additional staff for Project Respond, which has a team dedicated to partnering with officers to respond immediately to crisis situations. This new team also identifies high-risk individuals and provides outreach and monitoring services to them.

Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler and I have lobbied in Salem for increased state funding for programs to help the mentally ill, working closely with Sen. Avel Gordly. Thanks to Gordly and other members of the Oregon Legislature, almost a dozen mental health bills were passed last session, along with an additional $41.3 million in new funding for such needs as training for every police officer in Oregon to respond more effectively to the consumers of mental health services.

Portland police also have changed how they transport injured or sick persons and how they share information with paramedics and jail nurses. Officers no longer transport people who have been engaged in a prolonged physical struggle or are seriously injured, unconscious, suffering a seizure or extremely drunk unless a paramedic on the scene approves it.

Chief Rosie Sizer is changing the bureau’s use-of force policy to reduce the amount of force used when arresting or taking someone into custody. Portland officers currently use force in only 5 percent of all arrests, and we are committed to reducing the use of force in a way that provides effective policing and protects residents and officers.

One major gap in the mental health system that has not been filled is the critical need for a mental health crisis triage center where officers can immediately take a mentally ill person for assessment and appropriate treatment. Multnomah County Commissioner Lisa Naito has proposed funding such a center, and I hope her idea receives serious consideration.

These steps will go a long way toward removing the stigma surrounding mental illness and will provide more humane responses on the part of the police and others. Jail cells should never be our only option for people with mental illness.

Ultimately, the issue of how we respond will never be resolved until it is no longer acceptable for anyone in our community who is struggling with mental illness to be left to wander Portland streets instead of receiving the help they so desperately need.

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