Unacceptable: Chasse case should ignite a revolution in policing

From the Oregonian Editorial Board, September 25, 2009

Many things can be said about the death of a mentally ill man in police custody. ‘Acceptable’ isn’t among them


You can almost feel this community reeling in stunned disbelief at the headline coming out of the Portland Police Bureau this week (“Sizer: Chasse force acceptable,” The Oregonian, Sept. 24).

Nothing about the death of James P. Chasse Jr., a mentally ill and physically fragile musician, will ever be remotely acceptable.

Unacceptable: The secrecy that has swaddled this case. When there’s a death at police hands or in police custody, it shouldn’t take a federal lawsuit to illuminate what happened. The public deserves a full and prompt accounting in a public inquest.

Unacceptable: The length of time, three years, it has taken for the chief to decide on discipline — or lack thereof — for the officers involved. True, it has been complicated by the federal lawsuit filed by the Chasse family, which goes to trial in March, but there’s still no excuse.

Unacceptable: The officers’ maximum response on Sept. 17, 2006, to a situation that called for minimal intervention. It is not even clear that Chasse, a 42-year-old schizophrenic, actually urinated in public, the offense that supposedly triggered the police chase in the Pearl District.

Of course, police are often rightfully suspicious when people ordered to stop run away from them. But there is some doubt about whether Chasse was even capable of running, since he walked with a limp as a result of a traffic accident. We do know for certain he was terrified of the police. And, it turns out, he had every reason to be.

On Wednesday, however, Police Chief Rosie Sizer announced her conclusion that the officers who confronted Chasse three years ago conformed to bureau policy. The chief only singled out a sergeant for discipline, recommending he be suspended for an unspecified period — 40 hours has been discussed — for failing to ensure Chasse went to a hospital.

That lapse may sound minor, but it wasn’t. It violated a bureau policy, adopted in 2006, requiring that anyone stunned with a Taser who shows evidence of disorientation be rushed to a hospital.

Had the sergeant adhered to this policy, it might have saved Chasse’s life. As for whether everything else adhered to bureau policies — and a use-of-force review board backed up the chief — the response from this community must be: Well, great. Then change the policies.

And it’s reassuring to know that the bureau has done exactly that. Sizer, remember, was sworn in as chief on July 13, 2006, just two months before Chasse died. Since his death, and it’s not a coincidence, the bureau has instituted crisis intervention training for all uniformed officers; altered training on foot pursuits; and overhauled the protocol for evaluating and transporting the injured.

True, there have been many tragic deaths at police hands or in police custody over the years. Some have reverberated in this city for a time without fundamentally altering the culture of the bureau. A bureau chastened and revolutionized, a bureau that you can speak of as pre-Chasse and post-Chasse?

That’s the only outcome from this case that is remotely acceptable.