OK, I Heard You. Now Crawl Back Under the Rock.

*The following post was sent to the My Oregon blog server at Oregonlive.com in response to several comments posted with the news item of Multnomah Country’s settlement in the James Chasse civil case.

by Michael Hopcroft, Board Member, Mental Health Association of Portland

The anonymity of the Internet is a wonderful thing under some circumstances. It allows you to interact in ways you could not interact otherwise. Nobody has to know if you have a disability, or are writing about something that could get you into trouble were you not anonymous.

On the other hand, on the Internet nobody knows you’re a jerk – or, at the very least, your faux pas can’t be traced back to you.

Last week, Multnomah County reached a settlement with the family of James Chasse of their lawsuit over his death at the hands of Portland police. The settlement was for more than $900,000. And with the news story, Oregonlive offered a comment opportunity. And that was when a lot of people crawled out from under their rocks and started spewing hate.

People called the settlement a waste of money. People said the police should have carte blanche in dealing with subjects. People said the family should not have been allowed to sue. People said that the family should repay society for the costs associated with James Chasse ever having been alive. It was that last bit that was especially galling – the idea of “wrongful life” when mental illness is involved.

Let’s get some facts straight here. Chasse suffered fatal injuries that were ignored until it was too late to save him. His crime was being in the wrong place and allegedly urinating in public – something everybody has done at one time or another. The police and paramedics showed an alarming degree of ignorance and indifference towards the injuries they had inflicted, intentionally or not. And as a result James Chasse died a beastly, horrible death.

As far as the settlement being a waste of money – how much more money would the country have ended up having to pay, both in legal fees and in the final judgment, fighting a case where their losing was a virtual certainty? Compared to that outlay, the settlement was a bargain for the county. And as a partial result of the Chasse case, an assessment and treatment center for people in crisis is on the drawing board where none had been in place for close to ten years.

Should the family have been allowed to sue? Definitely. The civil system exists to provide a means for the redress of grievances, and the Chasse family had one of the most legitimate grievances imaginable. Monetary compensation is no substitute for this incident never happening, but it is a means by which entities that display negligence are reminded “Don’t do this again! You need to change your approach!” It is a lesson that the county needed to learn, and by settling the case instead of fighting a losing battle the county has shown they are willing to learn that lesson.

Where did these people come from who said those ignorant, awful things? We have no way of knowing. They have their anonymity behind which to hide. It could be anyone I meet on the streets of Portland, or someone who’s never even set foot in Multnomah County. There’s no way to know. It’s enough to know that these attitudes are out there – that there are people who believe a hideously painful death is the proper punishment for urinating on the sidewalk, or who believe that mental illness itself should carry the death sentence. It is a disturbing sort of knowledge, but a lesson that we need to remember. Ignorance and hate are still parts of our society, no matter how well we educate ourselves.

And that is one of the unkindest cuts of all.