The Message You’re Sending

"I am James Chasse" shirt that I bought at In Other Words, in Portland
“I am James Chasse” shirt that I bought at In Other Words, in Portland

Living in Portland you have to know the name James Chasse.

You must know that police tackled Chasse, who was a paranoid-schizophrenic, in front of restaurants in the Pearl District. You must have heard that the three police officers involved alleged that Chasse was urinating when they went to approach him, while many eye witnesses said otherwise. You must have heard that he was tased and the police turned away the EMT’s sent to check Chasse. Surely you’ve seen the picture of him lying on the ground while cops stood drinking coffee above him. You had to have heard that when he was taken to jail the nurse there said he was too badly injured to remain there, and ordered the police to take him to a hospital. Maybe you’ve seen the gut-wrenching video from the jail of the cops carrying a hog-tied Chasse out to a patrol car, as he screamed in agony. And of course you must have heard that on the ride to Portland Adventist, James Chasse stopped breathing and died.

The State Medical Examiner said Chasse has 48 separate abrasions and bruises on his body, as well as 16 fractured ribs and 26 different breaks along his rib cage. The Oregonian’s columnist, Steve Duin (who also happens to be a veteran rugby player), balked at the assertion that only a tackle to the pavement resulted in those kinds of injuries; “If that’s the way it worked, a dozen rugby players would die every weekend out at Delta Park”.

As a result of Chasse’s death, the media fallout, legal settlements and a major investigation by the Department of Justice on how Portland’s law enforcement handles its mentally ill citizens, the Portland Police Bureau had to face the hard reality that it was woefully behind other major American cities departments.

I remember watching a video on KGW news earlier this year profiling the news of Portland’s newest police unit—the Behavioral Health Unit, which includes proactive, front-line police patrols called the Mobile Crisis Unit—and thinking, finally. According to a press release from the Portland Police, the Mobile Crisis Unit involves three teams of cars, each with an officer and a social worker or mental health care worker riding along. In their press release, they describe how “the Mobile Crisis Unit will continue to proactively work with individuals who have multiple contacts with police to attempt to connect them with appropriate services in advance of a mental health crisis.” Memphis, Tennessee’s police department has had this program in their city since the late eighties, and Portland’s now modeled their program after it.

But about halfway through the KGW profile piece I’m confused and filled with rage.

The three officers involved in the Chasse case included Portland Police Officer Chris Humphreys and Sgt. Kyle Nice, and Multnomah County Sheriff’s Deputy Bret Burton. Humphrey’s is now the Sheriff in Wheeler County, Sgt. Nice was allowed to return to duty about a year ago, after an off-duty road rage incident where he pulled a gun on a motorist, and the Portland Police eventually hired Burton.

Anyone want to take a guess who one of the first officers hired for the MCU was?

A guy by the name of Officer Bret Burton.

Just so you know his role exactly, Burton was actually the one who tased Chasse that day.

“It’s something that’s definitely changed my life and changed the way we do police work here in the city,” he says in the KGW video piece when discussing Chasse’s death.

Yeah, and I bet it’s changed Chasse’s family and friends lives too.

By the way, the award for understatement of the year goes to Jason Renaud, co-founder of the Mental Health Association of Portland, when he told The Skanner, “We were very surprised that Burton was selected of all the officers taking courses”.

Has anything really changed with the Portland Police? By having one of the officers hired for this important unit be one of those whose interaction with Chasse ultimately led to his death, the department’s making a pretty strong statement regarding the priority of the MCU and the BHU, in my eyes. It feels like they’re essentially thumbing their noses at the Department of Justice regarding the settlement they were forced to make too.

All right, maybe I’m being a bit reactionary. Maybe Officer Burton is right for this unit because he has learned from the Chasse tragedy how to better handle someone experiencing a mental health crisis. Maybe he’s determined to never let something like this happen again and that’s why he was recruited to MCU. Perhaps what he says in that KGW report is right; Chasse’s death has changed him and it’s changed the Portland Police. Renaud (who knew Chasse personally) went on to tell The Skanner, “Perhaps he is the person who is most affected by this work and has somehow been transformed. Perhaps he is more conscious of people with mental illness.”

It is worth noting Burton and the other two officers that made initial contact with Chasse that day were never indicted, nor disciplined by any agency. You can have an opinion either way whether that was the right call or not.

But quite honestly, it feels like a slap in the face of anyone who struggles with mental health concerns. How could you, as a person with mental illness in crisis who makes contact with the MCU, ever fully trust them—much less Officer Burton if he shows up at your door? How can you ever fully believe the mission of the MCU is to actually help you? When the MCU comes across you when you are experiencing a mental health crisis, your first thought should be something like a feeling of relief that someone is going to work with you to get the help you need—not I hope I make it out of this cop car safely today.

Those dealing with certain types of mental health issues like schizophrenia, mania or psychosis can often become paranoid, and their delusions and hallucinations can even involve people in uniforms out to hurt them, like they are being specifically targeted. Often times these often irrational thoughts are just part of their symptoms of their illness. But as the Portland Police seems to continue to pay lip service to the citizens they are sworn to protect—including their most vulnerable ones—maybe the irrational thoughts aren’t completely irrational after all.

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