By Williams, Kristian
In These Times , Vol. 35, No. 9
Policing public space-with deadly results-in Portland, Ore.
ON JUNE 8, THE JUSTICE Department announced a civil rights investigation to see if police officers in Portland, Ore., were engaged in a "pattern or practice" of using excessive force against the mentally ill. The investigation comes after several incidents in which police shot people in psychological crisis.
The problems with the mental health system are real enough, but this focus may obscure other dynamics propelling police violence - specifically, those relating to race and class.
Two high-profile cases in Portland help illustrate the point.
The lonesome death of James Chasse
James Chasse was a well-known figure in downtown Portland, a writer and musician with a history of mental illness and occasional homelessness. In September 2006, the police spotted Chasse loitering in the recently redeveloped Pearl District. As one officer put it, he was "doing something suspicious or acting just, urn, odd."
Officer Chris Humphreys approached; Chasse ran. The police chased him, tackled him and beat him. Chasse suffered 26 broken bones (mostly ribs), 48 distinct bruises and abrasions, extensive trauma to the head and a punctured lung. He died later that day.
His family sued and received a $a.6 million settlement. Meanwhile, two cops were suspended for failing to ensure that the bloodied, unconscious man they were arresting received medical treatment. No one was disciplined for beating him.
There is no evidence that Chasse committed any crime. The worst he was accused of was urinating in public. The offense itself builds in an element of class-bias: It is the equivalent of trespassing under bridges or panhandling, activities that homeless people resort to in order to survive. In practice, enforcement of such laws comes very close to criminalizing poverty per se.
In this case, moreover, the accusation was merely an excuse for what then-Transit Police Commander Donna Henderson later termed a "pretext stop." In other words, the police approached, and then chased, and then killed Chasse, not for anything specific that he did, but simply because, as they saw it, he was "suspicious" - or rather: "just, urn, odd."
Chasse died because the cops decided that he did not belong.
'He could be a gangster'
Nearly four years later, on May 12, 2010, Portland police pulled over a young African-American man named Keaton Otis, ostensibly for changing lanes without a signal. It's not clear exactly what happened next, but within minutes Officer Christopher Burley had been shot and Otis was dead after being shot 23 times.
It was not long before the police were placing the blame on the mental health system. Burley told the press that he wished Otis had found treatment for his psychological troubles: "The community as a whole failed Mr. Otis," he said. "He deserved resources."
But the police did not stop Otis because of his mental distress any more than they stopped him because of his driving. The cops involved were part of the "Hot Spot Enforcement Action Team," a gang squad concentrating on the area surrounding Lloyd Center mail They stopped Otis because Officer Ryan Foote saw a black man wearing a hooded sweatshirt and concluded "this guy. . . kind of looks like he could be a gangster."
It is against Portland police policy to single people out solely because of their race, but Footes assessment seems to pass official muster. After the shooting, the public information officer, Detective Mary Wheat, stated: "The officers would not have been doing their duty if they had not pulled him over."
Police now admit that they had no evidence that Otis had any history of gang activity. Aside from a single traffic ticket his record was clean. Again, we see police policies unfold in ways that are not only discriminatory, but deadly.
Policing 'quality of life'
In Portland, the standards of public order that the police enforce are shaped and propelled in large part by the agenda of the local chamber of commerce, the Portland Business Alliance (PBA). …