City auditor will hire outside expert to examine Chasse investigation

LaVonne Griffin-Valade

LaVonne Griffin-Valade

From the Oregonian, October 1 2009

Three years after James P. Chasse Jr. died in police custody, the Portland city auditor has announced plans to hire an outside expert to evaluate the quality of the police bureau’s just-completed internal review of his death.

Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade said Thursday the expert will consider why the Portland Police Bureau’s internal inquiry spanned nearly three years and will examine whether police policies or training that drove the officers’ actions are adequate. The expert will review the bureau’s completed internal affairs investigative reports and will not conduct an independent investigation of Chasse’s death.

“The public and city officials need to know that the Chasse investigation was thorough, balanced and unbiased,” Griffin-Valade said.

But mental health advocates who have been closely following Chasse’s case, as well as other police watchdog activists, say the city’s action is “too little, too late.”

Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland and Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch said what’s needed is the release of the bureau’s internal investigative documents.

“They always are just one step behind where we need a police review board to be,” said Handelman.

Renaud called the move a distraction.

“I think it’s entirely diversionary,” Renaud said. “It’s not satisfactory to not release the internal affairs investigation. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

The auditor’s announcement comes amid a wave of criticism following Chief Rosie Sizer’s ruling last week that a sergeant was the only officer involved in the Chasse case who violated bureau policy. The chief is recommending the sergeant be suspended for failing to have Chasse taken to a hospital after police stunned him with a Taser. The chief also found that officers who thought Chasse was urinating in the street and stopped him, then chased him and knocked him down and struggled with him used appropriate force. She said they acted within bureau policy.

Chasse, 42, who had schizophrenia, died after he was taken into custody from broad-based blunt-force trauma to the chest. An autopsy showed he suffered 26 breaks to 16 ribs, some of which punctured his left lung; 46 separate abrasions or contusions on his body, including six to the head; and 19 strikes to the torso.

The city is preparing for a March trial in federal court resulting from a civil lawsuit Chasse’s family filed. It accuses officers of excessive force and the police and paramedics of failing to provide adequate medical attention. Multnomah County this summer settled its part of the lawsuit for $925,000.

Mary-Beth Baptista, director of the Independent Police Review Division, which handles complaints against Portland police, said the auditor’s decision was made weeks ago, before the police internal affairs inquiry was done and after discussion with her and her assistant director. An outside review, though, couldn’t begin until after the bureau’s inquiry was completed last week.

“We have been listening to the community concerns about the length of time it took for the investigation, and this is what IPR’s responsibility is. Each year we will review in-custody deaths and officer-involved shootings,” Baptista said. “Our goal is to identify strategies to reduce in-custody deaths.”

Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman said the auditor informed him of her plan Tuesday.

“It kind of was a surprise. I’m not really sure what it all is going to do,” Saltzman said. “But it’s certainly under the auditor’s purview to do it.”

Saltzman said he did ask the auditor to control the timing of the review’s release, considering the pending federal case. He said he didn’t think releasing a report on the eve of trial would be good and suggested it either be completed well before the case starts, or afterward.

The city auditor is drafting a request for a proposal to hire an outside expert. There will be a four-week bidding process, but officials don’t have a timeline yet on when the report would be started or presented to the public.

“We’re clearly sensitive to the public’s need for answers to come quickly. However, we are still living in a bureaucracy,” Baptista said.

Sizer, who left town Thursday for a police conference in Denver, said through her spokeswoman that the bureau would fully cooperate.

Sgt. Scott Westerman, president of the Portland Police Association, said the police union welcomes the outside review.

“There are people in the community right now who believe Chief Sizer is protecting the officers involved, and is whitewashing this, etc. An independent review will do nothing but further show the public that our officers did nothing wrong.”

READ – Portland City Auditor to Hire Expert to Evaluate the Portland Police Bureau’s Handling of the James Chasse Investigation, City Auditor, October 1 2009
READ – Auditor asks expert to review police report on Chasse death, Portland Tribune, October 1 2009
READ – City Hiring Consultant To Probe Chasse Probe, Portland Mercury, October 1 2009
READ – Portland Auditor To Hire Expert To Look Into Chasse Case,, October 1 2009

OUR COMMENT – An audit of an internal process within the police bureau is really very different than what over 350 people have asked for – release the internal investigation of what happened to James Chasse.

A press release is not the investigation. An audit is not the investigation.

We have formally asked for a copy of the investigation from the city auditor. If we don’t receive this promptly we will start the Freedom of Information Act process to acquire this document.