Outside consultants shared with the Portland City Council Wednesday night the gaps and unasked questions in the police investigation of James P. Chasse Jr.’s death in custody, hours after the council approved a settlement of $1.6 million, the city’s largest, in a federal suit.
Police Chief Mike Reese apologized for Chasse’s death and said officers must do their jobs in a “more thoughtful and collaborative manner” with outside agencies. He called the three-year delay in the Police Bureau’s internal review “completely unacceptable.”
“We cannot change the outcome of what happened Sept. 17, 2006,” Reese said. “I’m very sorry for this tragic event and for the suffering that it caused.”
The chief said he agreed with the majority of the 27 recommendations offered by the California-based OIR Group and hoped they would help mend the rift between the bureau and the community.
Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade ordered that report. It recommended a range of reforms, among them requiring police to conduct face-to-face interviews with civilian witnesses and sending internal affairs investigators out to a scene immediately.
But the attorney who brought the wrongful-death lawsuit against the city for Chasse’s family said the consultants’ report got facts wrong and overlooked the bureau’s systemic failure to hold its officers and supervisors accountable.
Attorney Tom Steenson said the facts of the case were that officers who were involved in Chasse’s death changed their accounts of what occurred during the inquiry. They were not upfront with medical personnel about their use of force, they falsely suggested bread crumbs that Chasse dropped were cocaine when he had no drugs on him, and they lied to witnesses about Chasse’s past.
“There has been a consistent and repeated effort, conscious or otherwise, resulting in a failure to discipline officers,” Steenson said. “As a result, I believe they can act in impunity in the use of excessive force and can lie about it and attempt to cover it up.”
Other community members agreed, saying they were disappointed there’s been no serious accountability for the three officers who confronted Chasse. Officer Chris Humphreys and Sgt. Kyle Nice received two-week unpaid suspensions. Bret Burton, a Multnomah County sheriff’s deputy at the time, was not disciplined and has since been hired by Portland police.
Community members also disputed police suggestions that Chasse’s death marked a failure of the mental health system.
“In almost four years of review, no police officers were held accountable. No indictment, no crime, no personal accountability … ,” said Jason Renaud, a volunteer with the Mental Health Association of Portland who knew Chasse.
“Until you have the powers to act publicly and decisively in response to a critical incident, you cannot give assurance what happened to James Chasse will not happen again,” Renaud said. “What happened to James Chasse was not a failure of the system, of the institution, of the city. It was an unforgivable failure of three individual officers.”
Earlier Wednesday, city commissioners approved the $1.6 million settlement to Chasse’s family by a 4-0 vote. The agreement had been announced in May. Commissioner Dan Saltzman was not present. Mayor Sam Adams, ill at home with strep throat, voted by phone; he also participated by phone in Wednesday evening’s session.
On Sept. 17, 2006, police thought Chasse, 42, who had schizophrenia, might have urinated in the street in the Pearl District and tried to stop him. They chased him and knocked him to the ground, then wrestled with him to arrest him.
Multnomah County jail staff refused to book him because of his medical condition. He died in police custody en route to a hospital.
An autopsy found he died of broad-based blunt-force trauma to the chest. He suffered 26 breaks to 16 ribs, some of which punctured his left lung.
The consultants said the three-year pace of the internal investigation was a “letdown” to the community. They found Multnomah County refused to allow its employees to be interviewed by internal affairs investigators until after they were deposed in the civil suit. Also, AMR ambulance staff refused to speak to homicide detectives until they faced grand jury subpoenas.
The report indicated that command staff steered internal affairs investigators away from looking into allegations that officers at the scene misinformed a witness by falsely claiming Chasse had 14 drug convictions. Also, the inquiry never delved into the apparent lack of supervision of the officers by then-Transit Cmdr. Donna Henderson.
Derald Walker, chief executive officer of Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, stunned observers when he told the council that Henderson is now on the agency’s board of directors.
“I’m sort of surprised the commander of Transit (then) is now on the board of Cascadia. There’s some irony there,” said Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch.
Consultants also found investigators failed to question why officers carried Chasse in maximum restraints to a car, which exacerbated his injuries, and kept him there while they did paperwork across the street from jail before booking him.
Chasse’s family released a statement Wednesday, saying their decision to settle the case was not easy. However, they felt there was little to gain by going to trial, even though their lawyers advised them against the city’s final offer.
“We are relieved that the case has settled, but it is a very rough form of justice: the truth is that a civil suit seems to be the only form of justice that our local system will allow when police are involved in a killing,” their statement said.
They ended their statement with a tribute to Chasse, a “painfully shy” man who preferred comic books about superheroes over talking.
“James, may you rest in peace. We love you and miss you.”