Calling it a “tortured death,” the family of a mentally ill Portland man who died in police custody filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday seeking to change the city’s policy on the use of force.
The complaint seeks changes to limit the use deadly force and foot pursuits. It also seeks to establish an independent oversight panel for reviewing deaths in custody, along with an intervention system to monitor officers who use excessive force.
A request for damages for alleged civil rights violations and wrongful death would be determined at trial.
James P. Chasse Jr. died last September after he was arrested following a foot chase by officers who said they thought he was on drugs or drunk after urinating in public.
Chasse, 42, suffered from schizophrenia. During the arrest, he suffered broken ribs that caused massive internal bleeding and led to his death.
“He was a gentle and a kind man who was in good physical health … but his life was brought to a tragic end,” Tom Steenson, the attorney for the family, said at a news conference.
Spokesmen for the Portland Police Bureau and Mayor Tom Potter declined comment, citing city policy on pending lawsuits.
But John Doussard, spokesman for Potter, confirmed that $500,000 in funding the mayor had sought to improve police training for managing the mentally ill has been approved and training has begun. Potter publicly apologized to the Chasse family last October.
A grand jury found no criminal wrongdoing by the two Portland police officers and a Multnomah County sheriff’s deputy.
But Steenson accused the three officers – Officer Christopher Humphreys, Sgt. Kyle Nice and Deputy Bret Burton – of “a deliberate cover up.”
After realizing there were many witnesses, the officers told them that Chasse was on drugs, had been convicted on cocaine charges, was a transient and had no identification – “none of which was true,” Steenson said.
Humphreys even said he had found cocaine on Chasse when he knew it was a bag of bread crumbs, Steenson said.
The attorney said Chasse was walking in the neighborhood where he lived on a Sunday afternoon, carrying a sandwich and some comic books in his backpack, when he was confronted by the three officers.
“He did not use drugs or alcohol and had committed no crime. No one had complained about his behavior. Nevertheless, without any provocation whatsoever, (the three officers) tackled James and smashed him face first into a concrete sidewalk and brutally assaulted him,” Steenson said.
“Over the ensuing few minutes, and again without cause or provocation, James was repeatedly and viciously punched, struck, kicked and kneed in the head, the back, the ribs and the chest. He was also repeatedly Tasered,” he said.
Eleven of 12 ribs in the left side of his chest along the back were fractured, leaving sharp edges that caused the bleeding, Steenson said.
But Chasse could have survived the injuries if he had received prompt medical attention from the officers or from the paramedics who were called to the scene, the family’s attorney said.
But none of the officers, the ambulance crew or deputies at the jail where Chasse was taken after his arrest provided any medical assistance – “not any medical help whatsoever,” Steenson said.
Chasse died while Humphreys and Burton were taking him to a hospital in a patrol car after jail deputies refused to accept him because he had gone into convulsions and stopped breathing, according to the complaint.
The family said an independent autopsy they requested found significant differences compared with the autopsy results provided by a state medical examiner – including that Chasse also suffered a broken shoulder and sternum, a major bone connected to the ribs.
Steenson noted those other injuries were not among the evidence presented to the grand jury that investigated the officers.
The lawsuit also names American Medical Response Northwest and “John Doe” firefighters and paramedics.