Death in the Public Interest

from Portland Mercury

Media Wants You to See Chasse Files

A federal judge finally ordered the City of Portland last week to turn over crucial documents regarding James Philip Chasse Jr.—the schizophrenic man beaten and killed by Portland police last September—but added one condition: The attorney for Chasse’s family cannot release any of the information in the documents to the public.

That’s not good enough, says a conglomerate of local media including the Portland Tribune, the Oregonian, and all of the city’s TV stations, which hired attorney firm Davis Wright Tremaine to intervene as a third party in the case last week. The interveners say the information is in the public interest and should be released not just to Tom Steenson, the Chasse family’s attorney, but also to the public at large.

Protective orders, such as the one keeping the Chasse documents out of the public eye, are often imposed on information about police officers involved in controversial in-custody deaths like Chasse’s. The city agrees to release information to the victim’s attorneys about the officers, like their disciplinary and phone records, but copies of the documents are made on pink paper to signify their confidentiality between the parties involved in the lawsuit.

If the case is settled financially between those parties before it goes to trial, as often happens with in-custody deaths, then the most controversial documents never get a public airing. The officers can continue working for the police bureau without journalists or the public being able to ask tough, evidence-based questions about their fitness for the job.

The stakes over the Chasse case’s protective order are high, and a fight between the city and Steenson over whether to impose one has delayed “discovery,” or handing over, of many documents in the lawsuit so far.

Among the most controversial documents Steenson asked for last week was a copy of the cops’ Internal Affairs Division (IAD) investigation into what happened. Over a year since Chasse’s death, that investigation is still incomplete.

Steenson also asked for police training documents and standard operating procedures relating to use of force in encounters like Chasse’s. The city attorney’s office says it has tried to get those documents from the police bureau’s training division, but for some reason the division has withheld them.

Furthermore, Steenson wants copies of all 2,400 police reports written by Officer Christopher Humphreys during his eight-year career at the police bureau. Humphreys has the bureau’s second-highest use-of-force rate according to statistics released last November, and Steenson argued that his office has evidence that Humphreys has a “history or pattern of falsifying police reports,” and wants further information to prove it.

Humphreys had been the subject of seven IAD complaints when the numbers were released. Since the Chasse incident, Humphreys has been accused (along with three other officers) of beating another man, Charles Manigo, during an arrest at the Rose Quarter TriMet stop in May 2006. Manigo is seeking $135,000 in damages in that lawsuit, filed on August 21 of this year.

“There won’t be a written policy saying, ‘We’re not going to discipline officers based on what they do,'” Steenson said in his opening arguments on Thursday, October 11. “But I believe there will be evidence [in these documents] that the city does not take the steps necessary to discipline or terminate officers in cases like these.

“The word on the street [is] if you’re a police officer,” Steenson added, “you can essentially act with impunity.”

Judge Dennis J. Hubel struck a compromise: He ordered the city to produce some of the documents Steenson is asking for—including the incomplete internal affairs investigation, training documents, and Officer Humphreys’ arrest reports—but only the ones leading to legal claims against the city.

Hubel also scheduled a separate hearing for Tuesday, November 13, to hear the media’s arguments over the protective order and to decide whether it should still stand, and if so, precisely which documents it should include. Nevertheless, Steenson and Deputy City Attorney James Rice took the opportunity last week to argue about the protective order.

“[The information] relates to the operation of the Portland Police Bureau,” Steenson said. “And I believe that… historically, lawyers have not been as conscious about the public’s right to look at things as perhaps we should have over the years.

“The public interest here is probably off the chart,” Steenson continued. “I don’t think that the generalized concerns the defendants have [about the protective order]… are enough to outweigh citizens’ concerns in this case.”

Rice countered by arguing that releasing the information to the public would threaten the officers involved.

“The threat of harm to officers in this case is not theoretical,” he said.

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