More than three years after James P. Chasse Jr. died in police custody of blunt force trauma that splintered 16 of his ribs, Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer found that a sergeant was the only one who violated policy, by failing to send Chasse to a hospital.
Sizer announced Wednesday that the officers who struggled with Chasse as they tried to take him into custody used appropriate force and acted according to bureau policy. But she found the sergeant failed to have Chasse , 42, taken to the hospital as required for certain people once they’ve been stunned by a Taser.
The chief has proposed an unpaid suspension for the sergeant, who may challenge the decision, but did not say for how long.
Sizer’s long-awaited ruling comes as the city and the Chasse family prepare to go to trial March 16 on a federal civil-rights lawsuit that accuses the officers and American Medical Response paramedics of using excessive force and denying Chasse appropriate medical attention.
The police union president praised the ruling, but mental health advocates and others who have closely monitored the case expressed frustration and called for changes to police policy.
Two Portland officers –Officer Christopher Humphreys and Sgt. Kyle Nice –and then-Multnomah County sheriff’s Deputy Bret Burton, who is now a Portland officer, arrested Chasse on Sept. 17, 2006, 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 take him to a hospital, saying Chasse ‘s vital signs were normal. But jail staff members refused to book him because of his physical condition. Chasse , who suffered from schizophrenia, died while being taken to the hospital in a police car. The medical examiner said the cause of death was broad-based blunt-force trauma to the chest.
In a statement, Sizer said the bureau’s Use of Force Review Board found that the officers’ foot chase and the force they used to stop, control and handcuff Chasse was within bureau policy. The board also found there was no evidence 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 Nice, the sergeant, failed to insist that Chasse be taken to a hospital after police stunned Chasse , as bureau policy required in such instances.
The 2006 police policy stated that people who are medically fragile or suffering from hyper stimulation, agitation, apprehension or agitated delirium, which includes paranoia, altered mental status, confusion or disorientation before or after the Taser is deployed, will be taken to a hospital by emergency medical personnel.
Had Chasse received proper medical attention at the scene or been taken to a hospital right away, he probably would have lived, state medical examiner Dr. Karen Gunson said in a deposition filed in federal court this summer.
The autopsy found Chasse suffered 26 breaks to 16 ribs, some of which punctured his left lung. Gunson said he suffered 46 separate abrasions or contusions on his body, including six to the head and 19 strikes to the torso. Fractures to his back ribs also probably did not result from Chasse getting knocked to the ground or someone falling on top of him, but more likely resulted from a kick or knee-drop, Gunson said in her deposition.
The review board also considered allegations of untruthfulness in Humphreys’ account of how he knocked Chasse to the ground. Immediately after the arrest, Humphreys was recorded on a jail video telling jail staff members how “we tackled him” and Burton is shown imitating a bear hug. Three days later, Humphreys told police investigators that he shoved Chasse down with both forearms against his back –following police training.
The review board, made up of bureau members and community members, concluded the untruthfulness allegation “was unproven,” Sizer said.
Chasse ‘s family attorney, Tom Steenson, accused the bureau of violating a federal judge’s protective order, which prohibits the parties to the lawsuit from publicly releasing the internal affairs inquiry.
The city sought the order two years ago, which was contested by Steenson along with The Oregonian and other media. Steenson said Wednesday he intended to file a motion to have the order lifted immediately and the full inquiry released.
Michael Hopcroft, a board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland, criticized the chief’s findings.
“The facts of the case as found by more independent objective individuals showed that Chasse ‘s injuries could only come about by excessive force,” Hopcroft said. “Why the chief’s protecting the officers involved, I really have no idea.”
Though community members sit on the bureau’s Use of Force Review Board, Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch said the process is flawed because the board conducts its reviews behind closed doors. He said the public has no idea what influence the citizens wield or the information they’re given.
“If the police are not going to be held accountable, then the policy has got to change,” he said.
Last week, Sizer faced intense criticism for not having completed her internal review on the Chasse case as the third anniversary of his death passed. In her release Wednesday, the chief said, “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.”
Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman said he plans to sign the proposed discipline but also discuss with the chief the duration of the sergeant’s suspension. “We do regret the tragic circumstances around Mr. Chasse ‘s death.”
A 40-hour suspension for Nice has been one proposal discussed, but the chief wouldn’t comment.
Sgt. Scott Westerman, president of the Portland Police Association, the rank-and-file police union, said that the chief’s findings “reaffirm our belief” that the officers’ use of force was within policy. His prepared statement avoided any mention of Nice’s suspension.
Jason Renaud, who was a friend of Chasse ‘s and is a volunteer with the Mental Health Association of Portland, called the chief’s ruling “very disappointing.”
“They suspend Nice on a technicality to say they’ve done something on this case, and that’s worse than doing nothing at all, ” Renaud said. “It’s insulting and gives officers the message that this behavior is going to get them a slap on the wrist.”