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Looking For Changes A Year After Chasse Death

Mental health advocates, friends and family members mourned the anniversary Monday of the death of James Chasse, Jr. He died in downtown Portland one year ago, after being chased, tackled to the ground and beaten by three police officers.

They arrested him because they thought he was urinating on the street. He was unarmed. But he was schizophrenic and put up a serious fight while being taken into custody.

As Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, the police have instigated a number of new policies since the incident, but many Portlanders remain upset about what they see as a case of police brutality toward a mentally ill man.

The corner of Northwest 13th and Everett is in Portland's tony Pearl District.  That's where James Chasse was wrestled to the ground.

Now a group calling itself the 'Dirty and Dangerous' has used concrete to secure a wooden box to the sidewalk. It’s an illegal memorial to Chasse, explains a young man who is dressed in black, with blue hair and a pierced face. He only wants to be identified as Paxana.

Paxana: “It just says in memoriam of James Chasse and also in support of those who fight against police brutality and in support of his friends and family and other people who’ve been victimized by police.”

The memorial is just one of the activities marking Chasse’s death.

In another event, the Mental Health Association of Portland handed a letter to Mayor Tom Potter. Association spokesman, Jason Renaud, says it outlines problems still revolving around the Chasse case.

Jason Renaud: “A lot of our supporters and friends have questions about what happened to Jim that really haven’t been answered, by the police or by the mayor’s office. And these questions are persistent and deserve answers.”

In another observance of the anniversary, about a dozen people stand outside Portland Police Headquarters, with signs reading: “Demand Police Accountability” and “Justice for James Chasse.”

Chani Geigle-Teller leans on a sign and says police have claimed that Chasse died because Oregon has a crumbling mental health system. But she says, that’s not true.

Chani Geigle-Teller: “We do feel that Portland Police officers are known for targeting folks that they feel are undesirable, street people, people of color.  Statistics show that that’s Portland historically. But at the same time we feel like it’s imperative that our message is that James Chasse did not die because he was schizophrenic, James Chasse died because the police beat him and denied him medical service.”

Geigle-Teller says she knows the challenges of working with the chronically mentally ill — her job is to find transitional housing for those who wind up on the street.

Chani Geigle-Teller: “That’s our 9 to 5. And we never kill anybody. We don’t do that. We help them. We handle crisis all the time and we never hurt anybody.”

15 floors above the demonstration, Police Chief Rosie Sizer says she understands people are upset. But she stresses, the bureau has taken several concrete steps to make sure another person doesn't die as Chasse did.

For example, the police bureau has spent half a million dollars putting every officer through a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training program.

Rose Sizer: “And we’re doing that for every new officer that is hired by the police bureau as well. We have developed new protocol around the intersection of police in the field and the emergency medical system. And we have all developed new protocol to ensure that information is communicated from one entity to another, and that the best decisions are being made by the best medically trained people.”

Sizer says they’ve also looked at how officers use force in the field.

Meanwhile, many cops are feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place. They used to be able to take disturbed people to Dammasch State Hospital, but it closed as part of a national movement to de-institutionalize the mentally ill.

Then in 2001 the city’s 24-hour crisis triage center closed. Now, says the head of the police union Robert King, the only option they have left is to take a mentally ill person in custody to a hospital emergency room.

Robert King: “There aren’t the resources in the city, or in the state, or in the county, that there have been in the past. And so therefore, countless people are on the streets are in crisis and little is done to help them.”

A grand jury cleared the three arresting officers in the Chasse case. But Chasse’s family has filed a civil suit.

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