Scott Westerman, president of the Portland Police Association, gets the case of James Chasse wrong from beginning to end in his recent commentary in The Oregonian (“Punishing the police won’t help us heal,” Oct. 13).
Just whom does he mean by “us”? The police officers he represents?
On Sept. 30, the Mental Health Association of Portland asked the City Council to remove from patrol duty the officers who chased down and brutally beat Chasse, leading to his death. Three officers. Not all officers. Just three. “Off patrol duty” is not punishment. Ten years in prison for manslaughter involving a mentally ill person is punishment. We asked for accountability.
After a week of silence from city commissioners, we called for the three officers to voluntarily resign. We don’t want them to be Portland police officers any longer, and resignations, we believe, offer a path toward redemption: a positive, healing first step in rebuilding trust and respect, one that only the officers could make, failing action from leadership. The three officers did not resign.
Reasonable, well-trained police officers are vital partners for those who care for the welfare of persons with mental illness. They hold an irreplaceable position in the continuum of our care. We’ve supported additional training for officers to understand mental illness and anticipate crises. We appreciate the many changes made at the state, county and city level to address this issue. But to confuse the trust and respect needed for effective policing with the brutal actions of Sept. 17, 2006, is irresponsible.
I knew James Chasse in high school, and my father also had schizophrenia. So I’ve paid close attention to the issue from the beginning. But the lengthy and inadequate response from the city of Portland transformed me from an interested observer to an active advocate.
Since Chasse’s death, I’ve wondered about officers’ opinions: Do they see the actions of their peers as excusable? As being within normal procedure? Do they think they would have done the same thing? Does police training skew one’s humanity?
Westerman asks Portlanders to equate the behavior of the three officers with the many hard-working men and women on the force who help us make better communities. He asks us to believe that all other Portland officers would cruelly beat a slight, frightened and nonthreatening man — and then fight to justify the beating as “within policy.” In doing so, Westerman degrades the entire Police Bureau.
Westerman’s role as a union spokesman puts him in the unenviable position of defending the indefensible. My mother was a shop steward. I know unions play an important role in providing a balance of power for individual employees. I feel genuine sympathy for officers whose union dues are spent defending the indefensible actions of three of their colleagues.
I’m no longer shocked by the absurdities of what Westerman had to say, but his words will not move our city forward. For our city’s sake, it’s critical that we hear from leadership unconstrained by union demands. We all need to hear now from Police Chief Rosie Sizer and Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the bureau.
Last week the Mental Health Association of Portland got a call from the city asking for a private meeting with Saltzman and Sizer. We declined. Impunity is a subject best discussed in the bright light of public access. Instead, we offered to host a public meeting so both Saltzman and Sizer can be heard and understood directly. So far they haven’t responded.
Mary Wheeler is a board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland.