Remembering James Chasse’s death

opinion editorial from the Oregonian

A public inquest is still needed, along with a mental health triage center in Portland

Mental health advocates showed Monday that they are determined not to let the death of James P. Chasse Jr. slip into oblivion.

Although Chasse’s death isn’t truly in danger of being forgotten — it has already had profound effects on the city and the state — advocates are right to keep the pressure on at City Hall. They shouldn’t let up until Portland has a 24-hour crisis triage center, where officers can take for evaluation people who appear to be mentally ill. Right now, they’re taken to hospital emergency rooms, which doesn’t do them, or the community, much good. They’re just released.

Chasse, a frail musician who was mentally ill, died in police custody on Sept. 17, 2006, after doing, well, what exactly did he do? The main thing, it appears, is that he acted a little strange and ran when police asked him to stop. And when they caught up with him, and an officer tackled or fell on Chasse, he didn’t just meekly allow himself to be taken into custody for doing — what was it again? Nothing. He continued to scream in terror, and fight back as officers kicked, punched and Tasered him.

When Chasse died not quite two hours later, he had 16 broken ribs, a punctured lung and massive internal bleeding. Why paramedics allowed him to be taken to the jail is not clear, or why jail personnel didn’t insist he be taken by ambulance to a hospital. Instead, he was taken the slow way around to the hospital, in a police car.

That’s among the things that have changed in the year since, however. Officers are now required to obtain a paramedic’s approval to take someone in Chasse’s situation to the hospital. They’re also required to tell medical personnel how much force they used.

The most pivotal change, though, thanks to Mayor Tom Potter, is that Portland is now giving patrol officers 40 hours of crisis intervention training. Although that will not prevent all deaths at police hands, or in police custody, it does teach officers what a frightening place the world is for someone who has a mental illness. And the Oregon Legislature even approved a new requirement that police recruits in the state academy undergo 24 hours of such training.

Thus Chasse’s death has had city- and state-shaking consequences. Still, there are many unanswered questions about the incident, in part because the Portland Police Bureau’s internal reviews haven’t been completed. Another reason is that there has never been a proper public inquest into what happened. Such an inquest is still badly needed.

Every death at police hands or in police custody deserves such illumination. Without light on the subject, questions only multiply and theories orbit indefinitely in the best possible place for them to spin, the dark.

Of the list of people who have died either at police hands or in police custody, there is perhaps no one whose death has sparked more outrage or more changes than Chasse’s has.

But that’s not the same thing as saying it has sparked enough.

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