The following ran in WW's 40th anniversary issue, 40 Years in 40 Days, on Nov. 4, 2014.
The chilling image is now iconic: James Chasse, a slight, 42-year-old man with schizophrenia, lies hogtied and face down in a Pearl District crosswalk. Portland police officers, firefighters and paramedics stand over his broken body. Chasse is still breathing, but not for long.
It took 106 minutes from the time officers confronted Chasse on Sept. 17, 2006, to the moment he died. It took years for the truth to come out about how police beat to death an unarmed, mentally ill man who posed no threat. His killing outraged the city and sparked calls for police reform and improved mental health services. That also took years—and it's still not clear the reforms have produced meaningful change. Chasse's death remains a touchstone.
"The amount of brutality raised people's consciousness," says Portland Copwatch co-founder Dan Handelman.
Chasse went to the alternative Metropolitan Learning Center in Northwest Portland for high school, where he thrived on punk-rock music and wrote and illustrated his own zine. In 1979, Chasse inspired a song called "Alien Boy" by seminal Portland punk bad the Wipers. "Cause he's an alien," the song went, "they hurt what they don't understand." (The song inspired the title of the 2013 documentary Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse.)
On the day he died, Chasse had been off his meds for weeks, perhaps months. Officers confronted him for, as they later said, "doing something suspicious." Frightened, he fled. One officer, Christopher Humphreys, tackled Chasse. Multnomah County sheriff's deputy Bret Burton and Portland police Sgt. Kyle Nice, joined Humphreys in punching and kicking Chasse and shooting him with a Taser while trying to pin him to the ground.
By the time they cuffed Chasse, the officers had broken 16 of Chasse's ribs in 26 places and punctured a lung. The officers later said they assumed Chasse was high on drugs.
The officers didn't tell paramedics what had happened, so the ambulance didn't take Chasse to the hospital. The cops tried to book Chasse into the Multnomah County Detention Center (the charges: resisting arrest and assaulting an officer). Two jail nurses refused to admit Chasse because of his injuries. Burton and Humphreys loaded Chasse back into their patrol car and headed for Portland Adventist Hospital. Chasse died on the way.
A state medical examiner later ruled Chasse had died of "blunt-force chest trauma" but said he would have survived if taken to a hospital sooner.
Three years later, after the Police Bureau finally concluded its internal investigation, City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who then oversaw the bureau, ordered a two-week suspension for Nice and Humphreys. In July 2012, an arbitrator dismissed the suspensions and ordered the city to award Nice and Humphreys back pay.
Chasse's family received settlements worth more than $3 million from the city, the county and ambulance company American Medical Response.
In 2011, as a result of Chasse's death, Multnomah County opened the Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center, a 16-bed facility to help stabilize patients suffering a mental health crisis. Mayor Charlie Hales proposed cutting the city's share of funding to the center last year. He reversed course after county officials howled.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice found Portland police had a pattern of using excessive force against people with mental illness. The city negotiated a settlement with federal authorities that calls for more police training and accountability.
Humphreys made news again in 2009, when he fired a beanbag round at a 12-year-old girl on the 148th Avenue MAX platform. Wheeler County elected him sheriff in 2012. Nice was temporarily assigned to a desk job after he was involved in a 2010 incident of road rage while off duty in Washington County.
Burton, the sheriff's deputy, joined the Portland police and in 2013 was assigned to the mobile crisis unit that works with the mentally ill.
"It's definitely something that's changed my life," Burton then told KGW-TV of Chasse's death, "and changed the way we do police work here in the city."
Mental health advocate Jason Renaud, co-producer of Alien Boy, isn't so optimistic.
"What killed Chasse was not a lack of training," Renaud says. "What killed Chasse are three police officers who still have badges."