More than four years after James Chasse Jr. died in Portland police custody on Sept. 17, 2006, we're finally learning all the unpleasant facts about what police did.
No thanks to this week's Rogue, the Portland City Attorney's Office, which denied the public and Chasse's family the chance to learn in a timely way what caused the death of a 42-year-old schizophrenic man who, by most accounts, was doing nothing wrong when police arrested him.
For four long years, city attorneys dragged their feet while attorneys for the Chasse family sought documents in their lawsuit against the city and the individual cops who arrested Chasse. Even after the city agreed in May to settle for a record $1.6 million, the city continued its attempts to limit what was released from a federal judge's protective order.
When Chasse family attorney Tom Steenson filed his lawsuit in February 2007 against the city, Multnomah County and the American Medical Response ambulance company, the city immediately began its efforts to curtail which documents were handed over and which were released to the public.
The city wanted to hide everything from training records to past complaints against individual officers. And before you think it was all a good-faith effort to protect the taxpayers from a huge payout, consider this: Multnomah County, which was also a defendant in the lawsuit, gave up almost all of its records without a fight long before it settled its end of the lawsuit in July 2009 for $925,000, Steenson says.
Even after the city settled with the Chasse family in May, city lawyers continued to wrangle with Steenson over which documents would be released from U.S. District Judge Dennis Hubel's protective order. Some documents still remain secret, including some training records and complaints. But the city finally handed over much of its documentation in August—nearly four years after Chasse died.
It's not the first time the City Attorney's Office has been accused of covering for the cops. Earlier this month, The Oregonian reported that the City Attorney's Office had kept for six years plaques that a police captain erected in a public park honoring Nazi soldiers (for more on that story, turn to page 17).
On Oct. 18, Steenson and co-counsel Tom Schneiger held a press conference laying out their conclusion from the newly released Chasse documents (see wweek.com/chasse_coverup). They believe the documents show a pattern that the officers covered up Chasse's injuries on the day of his arrest in order to prevent him from being hospitalized, where his injuries would be documented.
"If there hadn't been a cover-up by police," Steenson said, "James Chasse would be alive today."
But as a result of delays by the City Attorney's Office, those revelations come long after most public anger over Chasse's death has subsided. Officer Chris Humphreys and Sgt. Kyle Nice, the two cops most directly responsible, received a mere two weeks' unpaid leave as discipline.
"I believe that we were acting appropriately in defending the city in the litigation," says City Attorney Linda Meng.
On the contrary, we think Meng and other city lawyers should remember that sometimes, the city's best interest is in telling us the facts instead of hiding them.