Michael Hopcroft is a board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland
Protective order denies citizenry a full accounting
Thursday marks the third anniversary of the death of James Chasse Jr. The brutal way he died in the custody of Portland police officers has been debated relentlessly. The event still demands answers because the questions are too disturbing to ignore.
We know what happened to James. District Attorney Michael Schrunk released the homicide investigation within days after the grand jury saw it. Those documents detailed the event from every perspective.
On a warm summer evening, James encountered two Portland police officers and a Multnomah County deputy who attempted to take him into custody. James suffered critical injuries to his ribs and lungs that proved fatal within an hour, an outcome ensured by delays in getting him medical care.
His crime? An officer testified he thought James may have urinated on a tree. New documents show that even that crime is in dispute.
Excuses and misdirection began immediately. An officer said he had accidentally fallen on Chasse; the medical examiner found broken bones and injuries consistent with being kicked, punched and Tased. The beating took place on a downtown street corner, and dozens of eyewitnesses — tourists, commuters, shopkeepers, diners, pedestrians — confirm the savagery.
Officers claimed James was homeless; he lived in an apartment a few blocks away. Officers said they knew him; James had no police contact in over 20 years. Officers said he was a drug dealer and pointed to a white substance in his backpack as proof; forensic analysis revealed breadcrumbs.
Instead of an emergency room, James was taken to jail, where his injuries were finally acknowledged by a nurse. He died, still shackled, in the back of a patrol car on the way to the hospital. We can only imagine the pain and suffering those injuries caused him.
The default explanation from the officers was, “We didn’t do anything wrong.” The district attorney and a grand jury ruled no crime was committed.
This outcome presents a problem if the officers are right. What if no crime was committed, and the excuse, “We didn’t do anything wrong,” however unsatisfying in the face of the death of an innocent man, is technically correct? What if the officers followed their training and procedures precisely?
If so, police officers present a potentially deadly threat to those who may have urinated on a tree — or who look strange, suspicious, frightened or in some other way out of the ordinary to police.
The immediate and continuing actions of the Portland Police Bureau support this conclusion: The officers who brutalized James were back on duty within a few days. No disciplinary actions to Officers Bret Burton and Christopher Humphreys, or to Sgt. Kyle Nice, will proceed until the internal investigation is finished.
Critical incidents in which police officers kill citizens are supposed to have an official and full explanation — an internal investigation combining fact gathering and analysis. Decisions are made based on this internal investigation, one of the most important being: Did someone do something wrong?
So what happened? What really happened?
Three years have passed, yet the police internal investigation of what happened to James Chasse remains on the desk of Police Chief Rosie Sizer — unfinished.
The answer is financial. A civil suit is slowly proceeding through the federal court by James’ family against the city of Portland, TriMet and American Medical Response. A portion of the suit against Multnomah County was settled in July. Opening arguments start in March 2010. With potential appeals the case could last a year longer. The results of the internal investigation may affect public opinion, and, assuming it shows the city at fault, it’s in the best financial interest of the city to withhold its release. Thus, the truth about what happened and accountability for it has become tangled in shrouds of politics and money.
James Chasse’s story has become political and public. Many have been galvanized on both sides of the question of public responsibility and what to do about the officers directly involved. But when dealing with Chasse the cause, it’s important not to forget Chasse the man.
It takes courage to live with a severe mental illness. There is isolation. There are the thoughts you cannot trust, the delusions you cannot shake. There is fear. Just going on, following your treatment, and living itself is a challenge. But it was a challenge that Chasse, like many others, had been meeting on a daily basis. His life was cut short not by his illness or any failure on his part, but by blunt-force trauma caused by Portland police officers.
Details continue to emerge of what happened that September afternoon, some of them horrifying. Many more details are kept secret by the vast judicial protective order, supposedly to prevent public release from interfering with the city’s defense of the ongoing litigation in a civil case. Advocacy from our organization, perhaps this very writing, was determined to be a threat to officer safety.
Rosie Sizer should release her internal investigation about what happened to James Chasse immediately in the interest of a larger goal: Public safety begins and ends with public accountability.
On this sad anniversary, we remember James Chasse. He was not a nameless victim. What we must also recognize is that there are no nameless victims — that prior to every death there is a life.