James Chasse Jr. lies cuffed on the sidewalk on the day he died in Portland police custody.In the now-infamous photo of police standing over the shattered body of James Chasse, I and Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer see different things. Three years after the event, she has found the violence depicted in the photo “acceptable.”
I do not.
I see a semicircle of large men in black boots and body armor, bristling with weapons, sipping coffee over the sprawled body of a small man at their feet. He lies there because those same police had just inflicted fatal injuries upon him.
The dying man may have urinated in public. He may not have. He ran from the police. He was a person with mental illness. And for those things he was subjected to acts of violence that killed him. That is what I see.
What I do not see is “acceptable.”
When a city government reviews that photo and officially proclaims what it portrays to be “acceptable,” that city government is wrong. It is dead wrong.
Many of us found the police policy that led to James Chasse’s death unacceptable, and we were right. That policy has now been rewritten. But we are wrong to expect the City Council, the police chief or the district attorney to fix or even to alter the longstanding pattern of official behavior in Portland.
The City Council long ago gave up any authority over the Police Bureau when commissioners accepted union contracts that make discipline and firing virtually impossible. Even on the rare occasion in which a chief of police or mayor has attempted firings or discipline, those decisions have been regularly overturned. The district attorney labors under a statute that excuses police violence whenever officers make the feeblest claim of fear of injury to themselves or others.
The power to change the acts of violence, cover-up and half-truths of the Portland Police Bureau lies only in the hands of the overwhelming majority of decent, caring, compassionate, professional and hard-working officers themselves. It takes a lot of courage to break the code of silence and stand up to those who disgrace law enforcement. Only fellow officers can change the bureau.
For those who took an oath to “protect and serve,” there can be no higher duty than to provide leadership for change. There’s more at stake here than injustice to people with mental illness. It’s more than the embarrassment of responsible police officers when they, too, have to look at that photo. What’s in play is the integrity of law enforcement, public safety and communal confidence in our police.
The elected and appointed officials of Portland have shown time and again that they are unable to address police violence. Our city government is too impotent and dysfunctional to build a bridge or retain a baseball team. So it’s not realistic to expect them to do something more difficult.
Our obligation as citizens is to support our police. So I encourage everyone in Portland to support reform from within. Insist loudly on protection for whistle-blowers. Help honest police officers make the bureau a place of pride and professionalism. That’s the kind of real support police need.
Only when that is achieved can we look at an image of the bureau and attach the word “acceptable.”