Chasse arbitration a win for two officers, but a loss for all

unsigned opinion by the editors of The Oregonian, July 17, 2012

No doubt, Chris Humphreys and Kyle Nice were pleased with an arbitrator’s decision this month related to the 2006 death of James Chasse. At least someone is. Portland residents have every reason to be disgusted, and the rest of Portland’s police force should be uneasy. Whether they like it or not, the resolution of this incident reflects on them.

James Chasse

James Chasse

READ – What happened to James Chasse

One afternoon nearly six years ago, Officer Humphreys was patrolling with his then-partner, Deputy Bret Burton, who was working for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. They spotted Chasse standing “hunched” near a tree, where Humphreys thought he might be urinating or using narcotics, according to the arbitrator’s report. Chasse ran when he spotted the officers, and they gave chase. Humphreys employed what the arbitrator’s report calls a “takedown technique,” and Sgt. Nice — who arrived at the scene separately — estimated that it took two to three minutes for the three officers to take Chasse into custody.

It was quite a struggle. Chasse bit Nice on the calf, then tried to bite Humphreys and Nice again, according to the report. Humphreys punched Chasse in the face, and Burton shot him with a Taser.

The officers’ actions to this point seem to have been justified. But then the real trouble started.

Shortly after Chasse was placed in custody, he passed out, at which point Nice, the ranking officer on the scene, requested an ambulance. The primary paramedic soon cleared Chasse for transport to jail, where he passed out again. At a nurse’s insistence, Humphreys and Burton tried to drive Chasse to a hospital. Chasse died in transit of blunt force trauma to the chest, which likely happened while he was being apprehended.

Both Humphreys and Nice were suspended for two weeks without pay for violating the department’s Taser directive. Among other things, it required that people who exhibit “hyper stimulation” or “agitated delirium” before being stunned be taken to the hospital by EMS.

The arbitrator last week tossed the suspension and ordered the bureau to restore the two officers’ back pay.

Chasse, a schizophrenic, was certainly acting strangely. But Nice — who was in charge at the scene — did not violate the policy, the arbitrator ruled, because there is “significant evidence” that Chasse “did not at any time suffer from hyper stimulation and/or agitated delirium.” As for Humphreys, the arbitrator wrote, he wasn’t in charge, either at the scene or at the jail. And in any case, the paramedic at the scene told the officers Chasse was well enough to head to jail rather than the hospital. And the paramedic’s the expert, right?

In other words, unless an officer clearly violates a very explicit policy, there’s a good chance his union will, if so inclined, saw away at technicalities in arbitration until his penalty topples. No matter that his behavior might strike people outside of the union cocoon as shockingly callous. Most people understand that it might be difficult for a police officer with limited medical training to discern whether a suspect is suffering from hyper stimulation or agitated delirium. But in a similar situation, most people probably would approach the paramedic in charge immediately and say, “Hey. You might want to know that we just Tased that guy.”

Both officers should have done exactly this, but didn’t, the city argued in defense of the suspensions. Even the arbitrator acknowledged that there is “no dispute between the Parties that Sergeant Nice and Officer Humphreys could have provided substantially more information to the paramedics” about what had happened. The fact that such information would not have changed the paramedic’s assessment of Chasse’s condition is irrelevant. Chasse was tackled, Tased and lost consciousness, yet neither Nice nor Humphreys provided a full account of the struggle to the chief paramedic. There is simply no excuse for such behavior.

But that didn’t prevent their union from offering a couple. According to the arbitrator’s report, the union argued the following: “at the time of the Chasse incident, the Bureau had no policy around exactly what kind of information officers were obliged to tell paramedics. Second, the Bureau did not provide training to its officers on how to communicate with medical personnel.”

How much training does it take to say, “we just Tased him”?

If the department did, in fact, have such communication policies in place, we suppose the union would have argued that the bureau hadn’t trained officers to identify paramedics.

Few would dispute that police officers have a tough job, and most do it conscientiously and well. But the consequences when they fail can be terrible, which is why those who oversee them need the authority to impose reasonable discipline. This case and others noted this month by The Oregonian’s Maxine Bernstein indicate how difficult this authority is to exercise in the face of union opposition. The result, inevitably, is an erosion in the entire department’s credibility. That’s a high price to pay for lifting the suspensions of two officers whose performance even the arbitrator who ruled for them found lacking.