Lest We Forget...
James Chasse, Jr.'s Death in Police Custody, One Year Later

Ultimately, the issue of how we respond will never be resolved until it is no longer acceptable for anyone in our community who is struggling with mental illness to be left to wander Portland streets instead of receiving the help they so desperately need."

That is the compassionate and compelling statement that ended Mayor Potter's editorial in the Oregonian on the one year anniversary of James Chasse, Jr.'s tortured death at the hands of Portland police (PPR #40). On September 17, 2007, while Potter sat in his office attending to city business, activists were in the streets demanding answers and refusing to let die the issue of police accountability. They were reminding elected officials, reporters, the public and the police that Chasse died because the police targeted him for "acting bizarre" and then beat him to death. An ad- hoc group of activists, social workers, college students, people living with mental illness and friends of Chasse carried banners in front of the downtown police station all day. They marched through downtown reading the graphic details of Chasse's murder through a bullhorn. Another woman held flowers and a sign all day at the site where Chasse was beaten. A creative group of folks calling themselves the "Dirty & Dangerous Collective" cemented into that same corner a haunting wooden memorial to Chasse and all other victims of police brutality inscribed "Lest we forget." They took this action even after citizen activist Richard Prentice was verbally abused and threatened by police after hanging posters demanding justice for Chasse (PPR #42). Later in the day, another gathering took place in front of City Hall. Members of the Mental Health Association of Portland delivered a list of unanswered questions to Potter's office.

A month and a half later, the Mayor responded to these questions the same way he and Police Chief Sizer have all year when Chasse's death comes up. They reference an impressive but tired litany of accomplishments improving Portland's mental health system. Every improvement made has been vital and these programs should never have been cut. But that is secondary to the fact that our elected officials and law enforcement leaders have refused to address punishing the officers involved or even acknowledging ANY wrongdoing.

Thankfully, in addition to Portland activists, others are pushing the system. Tom Steenson, the Chasse family attorney, is mounting what appears to be an aggressive challenge to how the City handles police abuse of the use of force. As part of the family's lawsuit, he has asked for a copy of the police's still incomplete Internal Affairs Division investigation and all 2,400 police reports written by Officer Christopher Humphries over his career (Portland Mercury, October 18). In October, local corporate media including the Oregonian, the Portland Tribune and several TV stations filed with the courts demanding that information on Chasse's death be released to the public, not just the Chasses' lawyer. After weeks of the City stalling for time to find the documents, U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Hubel ordered them to get a move on, saying "We're not going to wait until you're done." The City produced some documents after a "protective order" was put in place in November­keeping them under wraps, for now.

So over a year later, the Portland community is still waiting for some closure. Portland police and officials continue to use their supposed compassion for helping the people with mental illness as the rug under which they sweep the issue of police brutality. Shamefully, our county and city have not found the funding to take the best care of our community's most vulnerable, with County Chair Ted Wheeler saying money for a mental health triage center will not be available until at least late 2008. But, we do not need more funding and resources to hold accountable the officers who killed James Chasse, Jr. We have the responsibility to continue demanding justice for Chasse right now.


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