More than three years after James P. Chasse Jr. died in police custody, Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer announced today that she found the officers involved acted within policy, but a sergeant should have directed an ambulance to take Chasse to a hospital immediately after being Tased.
Sizer’s long-awaited ruling comes as the city and Chasse’s family attorney prepare to go to trial March 16 on a federal civil-rights lawsuit that accuses the officers and American Medical Response Inc. paramedics of using excessive force and denying Chasse appropriate medical attention.
Chasse, 42, who suffered from schizophrenia, died in police custody Sept. 17, 2006. Two Portland officers, Officer Christopher Humphreys and Sgt. Kyle Nice, and then-Multnomah County sheriff’s Deputy Bret Burton (now a Portland officer) struggled to arrest Chasse after one of the officers said he appeared to be urinating in the street. Police said he ran when they approached. They chased him, knocked him to the ground and struggled to handcuff him.
Ambulance medics called to the scene did not transport him to a hospital, saying Chasse’s vital signs were normal. But jail staff refused to book him because of his physical condition. Chasse died in police custody on the way to a hospital from broad-based blunt-force trauma to the chest.
In a prepared statement this morning, Sizer said the bureau’s Use of Force Review Board found that the officers’ foot chase and the force they used during the struggle to stop, control and handcuff Chasse was within bureau policy.
The board also didn’t conclude that any of the officers involved “knew or should have known that Mr. Chasse had suffered a serious physical injury.’’
However, the board found that Sgt. Nice failed to require Chasse’s transport to a hospital following the use of a Taser against Chasse. As a result, the chief has proposed Nice face a suspension. She did not provide the length of the suspension.
The board also considered allegations of untruthfulness surrounding Humphrey’s account of how he knocked Chasse to the ground. While on a jail video Humphreys was recorded telling jail staff how “we tackled him,” Humphreys told police investigators three days later that he shoved Chasse down with both forearms against Chasse’s back –following police training.
The review board concluded the untruthfulness allegation “was unproven,” Sizer said.
The chief faced intense criticism last week from the Mental Health Association of Portland, and more than 200 people who signed a petition left at City Hall that called the delay in the release of the internal review “alarming and unwarranted.”
In her release, the chief said she was aware of the community’s dismay in the length of time it took for the ruling. “I am respectful of the community’s desire for this information, but also recognize that speed cannot trump thoroughness and fairness in a review process,’’ Sizer said.
Chasse’s lawyer, Tom Steenson, this morning withheld comment on the chief’s findings, and accused the police bureau of violating a federal judge’s “protective order’’ that prohibited the parties to the pending federal lawsuit from publicly releasing or discussing the internal affairs inquiry. Chasse’s attorney unsuccessfully argued two years ago for the court to set aside the “protective order,” and indicated Wednesday he’ll be filing a motion again to have the protections lifted.
Sgt. Scott Westerman, president of the Portland Police Association, said, “The findings of the investigation released today reaffirm our belief that the officers involved were within policy as it relates to their use of force in this incident.”
Jason Renaud, who was a friend of Chasse’s and is a volunteer with the Mental Health Association of Portland, called the ruling “disappointing.”
“I’m glad the chief released her ruling. I’m sorry it took her nearly 3 years,” Renaud said. “It’s unfortunate that nobody is really going to be held accountable for this man’s death.’’
READ – Portland Police Bureau Releases Use of Force Findings on the Death of James Chasse, press release from the Portland Police Bureau – September 23 2009
READ – Press release about the Chief’s press release, from Tom Steenson, attorney for the Chasse family, September 23 2009