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November 22nd, 2006 Ian Demsky | News Stories
 

Fact Check

Summing up the knowns—and unknowns—about the controversial death of James Chasse Jr.

     
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A candlelight vigil last month for James Chasse Jr. won't be the last development in this troubling case.
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What we know now about the death of James Chasse Jr. is probably all we'll know until his family takes the all-but-certain step of filing a civil lawsuit against Portland police and other agencies involved.

Before the details get cold waiting for that civil case, here's WW's "fact sheet" about the in-custody death of Chasse, a 42-year-old schizophrenic man ("Why Did James Chasse Jr. Die" and "Tackling the Issue," WW, Nov. 1 and 15, 2006). It is based on thousands of pages of reports and commentary over the past two months in the Sept. 17 death.

Did police beat James Chasse Jr. to death?

It's not totally clear, but probably not.

None of the interviews with a half-dozen civilian witnesses details a higher level of violence than the three officers involved described in their statements: several punches and kicks and the application of a Taser (which didn't seem to have much effect).

State Medical Examiner Karen Gunson says the massive injuries to Chasse's chest were not consistent with individual punches and kicks. The injuries are consistent with what most witnesses described: one or more officers landing on top of Chasse. (The attorney representing the family has questioned those findings.)

"I have seen, um, police brutality on the news, and it wasn't as, it wasn't, um, I wouldn't say it was gratuitous," said one of the witnesses, Constance Doolan, in a transcript of questioning by police.

Chasse's physical condition also might have made him unusually fragile if an officer landed on top of him. According to recently released police reports, Chasse's case manager noted he was not taking his medication and appeared to be losing weight. About a month before his death, Chasse was apparently unable to eat during a lunch with his mother and she was concerned he had "lost a lot of weight."

The criminal case was closed when a Multnomah County grand jury decided Oct. 17 the three officers involved in the death should not face criminal charges.

Did the grand jury get it wrong? Should the officers been charged with crimes?

We don't see any criminal actions on the part of the officers involved.

No one is saying, for example, they beat Chasse after he was hogtied, or whipped out their batons and pounded on an unarmed man.

Does that mean the police acted properly or humanely?

Absolutely not.

For example, witness Justin Soltani said that after Chasse was handcuffed, Portland Police Officer Christopher Humphreys repeatedly poked Chasse in the forehead with his fingers while he was lying on the ground.

"Like he's tapping the guy on the head," Soltani told investigators. "It [seemed like] an adrenaline rush [that] he just couldn't get off of."

Yes, Chasse had been screaming and struggling against attempts to restrain him, even biting at officers, but once the situation calmed down a bit, there's not a lot of evidence officers showed him much compassion.

The now-famous photo of emergency responders standing around a hogtied Chasse says it all.

Is it anything more than a coincidence that Humphreys, the officer who ran after Chasse and fell on top of him (following a push or a tackle), is one of the department's top users of force?

It's hard to say.

But we think the Police Bureau would be wise to use the incident to take a hard look at how it's collecting and using data about the force its officers use. Chief Rosie Sizer and other top brass have a responsibility to the public to rein in the department's "thumpers."

Problem officers, such as John Wood, who pleaded guilty in an unrelated case last week to asking to see women's panties during traffic stops, are a black eye to the rest of the force.

Use-of-force numbers are in the process of being incorporated into the department's "early warning system." That's important, since complaints filed against officers are only a partial measure of potential problems. Those in the most vulnerable segment of the population—the mentally ill, homeless and career criminals—are least likely to speak up and often have credibility problems when they do.

Why didn't Chasse get the medical treatment that might have saved his life?

We don't know why Chasse, who is believed to have had major internal injuries, seemed normal enough to medics that they didn't think he needed to go to the hospital. (American Medical Response personnel spoke to the grand jury, but not police investigators, so their statements aren't public.) Maybe police should adopt a policy that anyone who goes unconscious in custody should get checked out at a hospital.

 
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