November 14, 2006
On September 17, 2006, developer Homer Williams sat down to dinner at the Bluehour, "the premier modern restaurant in the Pearl District." From his perch on the Bluehour's patio, Williams could look with satisfaction at the condos, lofts, restaurants, and shops in the Pearl District, Portland's trendy near-downtown neighborhood. After all, Williams had built most of them.
Of course, Williams did not develop the Pearl District by himself. He had a lot of help from his friend Neil Goldschmidt, now disgraced as a child molester but once the most powerful man in Oregon. Soon after Goldschmidt retired as Oregon's governor in 1991, he started working as a political consultant and Williams hired him to help with various developments. Goldschmidt used his contacts as former Portland mayor, Oregon governor, and U.S. Secretary of Transportation to funnel millions of dollars of public subsidies to Williams' projects.
Prodded by Goldschmidt, the city of Portland has given ten years of property tax waivers to some $100 million worth of developments in the downtown area, including many of the developments in the Pearl District. Other developments receive subsidies through tax-increment financing, which means that the property taxes they pay go to directly subsidize the development.
These developments all impose costs on Portland police, fire, and other services, but since their owners pay so little in taxes someone else has to pay those costs. As Portland cannot raise taxes without voter approval, these costs are often covered by cutting the budgets of other agencies.
As Williams ate his dinner, one thing in his view was not so pleasant. On the sidewalk outside the restaurant, police had a man in custody. The man was on the ground with his hands and feet restrained, surrounded by police. Williams later said that it struck him as strange only because everything was so "casual".
But it wasn't casual for the 42-year-old man on the ground, Jim Chasse. Known to his friends as Jim Jim, Chasse was a talented musician and had been lead singer in a punk-rock band. But then he mysteriously came down with schizophrenia. As long as he took his medicines, he was fine, but sometimes he forgot.
On September 15, two days before Williams saw Chasse in custody, an overworked mental health worker named Ela Howard received a report that Chasse was not eating and probably not taking his medicines. Howard works for Project Respond, a Portland non-profit that works with homeless people and relies heavily on private contributions. Accompanied by a police officer, Howard went to Chasse's low-rent apartment a few blocks outside of the Pearl District.
When Chasse saw them, he yelled "Don't hurt me" and ran out of the building. The police officer asked Howard if he should chase Chasse, but Howard said no. Instead, she asked him to flag Chasse in the police database as one of Project Respond's clients and to page the group for assistance if police encountered him again.
Back in 1989, Portland had adopted a community policing program. This meant that police officers spent more time walking familiar neighborhoods and less time in police cars. The system was designed by Captain Tom Potter, who later became chief of police and now is Portland's mayor. Under this program, crime rates dropped through the 1990s.
However, the 2001 recession resulted in police budget cuts. Over the next few years, more police returned to cars and many became less familiar with the neighborhoods they served. Today, Portland's police department is better known for various sex scandals than for community policing.
Perhaps also due to budget cuts, Portland's police force had no way of flagging their database about Chasse. So when Officer Christopher Humphreys saw Chasse acting strangely on September 17, he assumed he was drunk or on drugs. When Humphreys approached Chasse, he saw "absolute sheer terror" in Chasse's eyes, and Chasse ran away. But he still assumed Chasse was just on drugs, and gave chase with the help of two other officers.
According to the officers, Chasse fell down and Humphreys fell next to him, or maybe half on Chasse and half on the ground. Other witnesses said it was more "like a football tackle," with Humphreys "throwing Chasse to the ground."
The police tried to subdue Chasse, who kicked and flailed and tried to bite them. The police said they hit Chasse "once, maybe twice" in the back, and then used tasers. When they had no effect, an officer said he punched Chasse in the face twice and pinned him down. Chasse screamed but finally stopped resisting when more officers arrived. Other witnesses say, however, that after Chasse was on the ground, police continued to kick and punch him in the chest and head.
None of the officers thought that a subdued and shackled Chasse was seriously injured. As they read him his rights, they report that he asked, "What did I do?" Thinking he was suffering from cocaine psychosis, they called an ambulance, but the medics said he was fine.
If this had taken place in the 1990s, police might have taken Chasse to a Crisis Triage Center, designed to help people in mental crises. But funding for the center was cut in 2001, so instead they took him to Portland's overcrowded jail and put him in an isolation cell.
In 2004, Portland dedicated a new $59 million jail, including "1 percent for art" -- $600,000. But the region doesn't have the funds to open the new jail, so it remains empty. Crime rates are increasing and the county sheriff regularly has to release inmates early, at least one of whom murdered someone a few days after being let out.
Although budgets for police, jails, mental health, and other programs have all been cut, Portland continues to approve heavy subsidies for more high-density developments. When he wasn't distracted by law enforcement or Bluehour's menu, Homer Williams probably gave some thought to the South Waterfront development, which Williams is currently building with hundreds of millions of dollars of public subsidies. Most of these subsidies take money away from police and other urban services.
At the jail, Humphreys and the other officers were filling out paperwork when someone noticed that Chasse suddenly stopped struggling. They called a nurse who observed that he was "twitchy" and told the police to take him to a hospital.
There are several hospitals close to the jail, but the hospital that has the contract for holding inmates is about eight miles away. On the way, police noticed Chasse was motionless and losing color. They stopped and tried to resuscitate him, then called an ambulance, which took Chasse to a closer hospital where he died of his injuries.
The autopsy found that Chasse had a dozen fractured ribs. Some of the broken ribs perforated the serosa, and the coroner found 300 cubic centimeters of blood in Chasse's chest cavity. There was no evidence of alcohol or drugs. Cause of death was "blunt force to chest."
A grand jury ruled Chasse's death an accident, but mental health advocates are outraged. Particularly upsetting is the record of 78 complaints against the excessive use of force by Officer Humphreys in the last two-and-one-half years alone -- the second most of any Portland police officer. In one case, the city had to pay $90,000 to someone who Humphreys struck with his baton thirty times before realizing that the person he was hitting was not the suspect he was seeking. Police say Humphreys is just put into dangerous situations more frequently than other officers.
The police argue that the blunt force that killed Chasse must have taken place when he was tackled. Oregonian writer Steve Duin notes that, if merely getting tackled is enough to kill someone, then a dozen rugby players would be killed in Portland each weekend.
Former Chief of Police Tom Potter, now Portland's mayor, says the problem is lack of funding for mental health, and he wants to spend $500,000 to train police to better deal with the mentally ill. But as Portland law professor Jack Bogdanski observes, the real question is: why does Portland continue to subsidize Homer Williams' high-density developments when funding is so short for police, mental health, fire, and other critical programs?