Too little, too late for James Chasse

Dan Saltzman, Portland Police Commissioner

Dan Saltzman, Portland Police Commissioner

From The Oregonian, Editorial Monday, November 9, 2009 – not available online.

City Commissioner Dan Saltzman‘s decision last week to increase the penalties for two Portland policemen involved in the now-notorious death of James Chasse in 2006 was too little, too late and further underlines the need for both a deeper public inquiry into Chasse’s death and strong reform of the city’s police system.

It is too late because everything about the Chasse case is too late now.

It is too late because changes in police policy and training in dealing with mentally ill people came after Chasse’s death, not before –despite numerous indications of the need for new approaches. And it is too late because the police internal affairs inquiry into Chasse’s death took three years –three years –to complete.

It is too little because a couple of weeks’ suspension, Saltzman ‘s proposed punishment for the officers, is not at all proportionate to the damage –the death of James Chasse –done here.

Chasse died after being chased by police for several blocks, furiously resisting arrest and finally being subdued by the pursuing officers. The coroner’s report concluded that Chasse died from trauma to the chest. He suffered 26 breaks to 16 ribs, some of which punctured a lung. His body also had 46 cuts and bruises, including six to the head and 19 strikes to the torso. An ambulance crew called by the police checked Chasse’s vital signs and decided not to take him to a hospital. County jailers refused to book Chasse until he had been taken to the hospital. He died in the back of a police car, not an ambulance, on the way there.

Oh, and the chase began after the police suspected Chasse was urinating on a sidewalk.

How exactly that meaningless offense escalated into a fatal encounter has yet to be adequately explained, despite the length time it took the bureau to conduct its internal investigation

The suspensions Saltzman ordered for police Sgt. Kyle Nice and Officer Chris Humphreys are more severe than those proposed by Police Chief Rosie Sizer, but it’s worth noting that even these actions have little likelihood of surviving the city’s employee arbitration process, which routinely vacates such discipline and has, over the years, become a joke.

The Portland City Council system almost guarantees that responses to things like the Chasse case will be as anemic as this one has become. With all of the responsibility for the Police Bureau residing in one commissioner — Saltzman in this case, who is not known for leading charges into controversial subjects –it becomes easy for the others to dodge their own responsibilities for the general welfare of the city.

Multnomah County and Chasse’s family have settled one federal lawsuit, with the county agreeing to pay $925,000 to the family. The family’s lawsuit against the city remains pending. These are positive developments only in the sense that recompense to the family is fitting. In any other sense, they constitute a very high price to pay for inadequate governance of Portland police.

Turning the situation around begins with something we’ve called for many times before: public and unflinching examination of every fatal use of force by the Portland Police Bureau. City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade has launched her own inquiry into the Chasse case and is hiring an outside firm to conduct it. That is good, but out of the ordinary. Such investigations should be routine, public and timely in every case. Police policies and actions on the use of force should always be subject to close public review because that kind of accountability leads to better performance –and may help avert future tragedies.”

Too little, too late for James Chasse