Police tactics and handling of mentally ill still being challenged two years after man’s violent death
James Chasse Jr. was a gentle but troubled soul in his youth. In 1980, he fronted a local band, the Psychedelic Unknowns. Over the next two decades, Chasse descended into schizophrenia until he was taken into police custody on Sept. 17, 2006, and died a short time later.
Almost two years ago, on a late sunny September afternoon, near the corner of Northwest 18th Avenue and Everett Street, a gaunt, 145-pound man behaving erratically came to the attention of Portland Police officers and one Multnomah County sheriff’s deputy.
He ran. They chased him. And then, somehow, he ended up with at least 26 broken and shattered bones in his rib cage and a punctured left lung. Less than two hours after the start of the encounter, after being taken to the jail, then toward the hospital, the man died in the back seat of a police car, at the age of 42.
Known to his many Portland friends as “Jim-Jim,” James Chasse Jr. had been a gentle but troubled kid who became a singer in local punk bands before descending into schizophrenia.
Since his death Sept. 17, 2006, he has become both a symbol and a rallying cry for mental health advocates as well as police critics, while for police he is viewed as yet more evidence that the mentally ill should be cared for by caseworkers, not cops.
But despite the tremendous attention given to Chasse’s death, the investigations, and a lawsuit filed by his family, there’s still uncertainty about how and why James “Jim Jim” Chasse died. His death remains an unsolved whodunit — or maybe, a whatdunit.
Conflicting accounts from those involved, officers contradicting the official story, and attacks on the state medical examiner’s autopsy have hung large question marks over Chasse’s death. And none of the officers who fought with him themselves admit to punching, elbowing, kneeing, kicking, tackling or otherwise making contact with Chasse with anything close to enough force to explain his injuries.
An old friend of Chasse’s, Jason Renaud, a longtime activist and volunteer with the Mental Health Association of Portland, says “the unanswered questions” about Chasse’s death have made his case almost a parable in the mental health community. “Everybody knows the case, every clinician, every patient,” he said.
Adding to the continuing questions, the city of Portland has persuaded a judge to keep secret key public records until the federal lawsuit filed by Chasse’s family either goes to trial next February, or is settled.
While the Portland Police Bureau has released records of a two-week criminal investigation into Chasse’s death, a nearly two-year internal affairs investigation will remain secret. A spokesman for Portland Mayor Tom Potter called that confidentiality a “routine legal step.”
As a result, the main source of new information concerning Chasse’s death has been his family members’ lawsuit and their lawyer, Tom Steenson, a civil-rights specialist with a reputation as a mild-mannered legal pit bull.
Players in Chasse’s death
The family’s disclosures, combined with public records and other information, give a glimpse into the various players who had a role, or may have had a role, in James Chasse’s death. Here are the details on those players:
• Cop No. 1 — Portland Police officer Christopher Humphreys
Several eyewitnesses, including a fellow cop, reported that Portland Police officer Christopher Humphreys tackled Chasse and fell on him. However, Humphreys denied it, saying he pushed Chasse, then flew over him.
Police officials say Humphreys forgot about landing on Chasse due to the excitement, and contend it was mainly that impact — not the ensuing fracas — that led to Chasse’s many broken ribs and other bones.
The State Medical Examiner, Karen Gunson, found that Chasse died of “broad-based blunt force trauma to his chest.” A second autopsy commissioned by the family, concluded that his injuries were from a beating.
• Cop No. 2 — Portland Police Sgt. Kyle Nice
Portland Police Sgt. Kyle Nice joined in the fight to subdue Chasse, who according to police and civilian eyewitnesses, was resisting vigorously. According to a police timeline, Nice called for an ambulance “for an unconscious male” about five minutes after the initial contact with Chasse.
Minutes later, medics from American Medical Response, the company that holds the county contract on emergency ambulance services, arrived.
Although the bureau maintains the medics cleared Chasse to be taken to jail rather than the hospital, Nice, when interviewed by detectives, suggested that the decision was his. He said the medics asked, “Do you want him transported?” and that he replied, “No, we have criminal charges. He’ll be going to jail.”
• Ambulance crew — American Medical Response
AMR’s medics said they found Chasse’s vital signs to be normal. They also reported Chasse fought them as they tried to render aid. Steenson, however, has suggested that there’s no way Chasse could have suffered the injuries documented by the state’s autopsy — let alone the additional ones found by the family’s autopsy — and still have normal vital signs.
The family’s lawsuit accuses the AMR medics of failing to do a complete medical exam.
• Jail medical staff
Although, according to the police bureau, the AMR medics felt Chasse was in good enough shape to go to jail, the nurses at the downtown Multnomah County Detention Center did not agree. Looking at him through the window of a separation cell, they told the officers to take him to the hospital, causing the officers to drive him toward Portland Adventist in outer Southeast Portland.
The lawsuit faults the jail nurses for not attending to Chasse in jail. However, a corrections grand jury later that year laid the blame elsewhere, saying the officers failed to inform the jail nurses of the extent of Chasse’s injuries.
• The system — the county’s mental health system
In the wake of Chasse’s death, Potter and Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer both said the county’s frayed mental health system should bear part of the responsibility.
According to a police report, Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare documents show that on Aug. 17, 2006, and Sept. 8, 2006, Chasse’s mental state was worsening and hospitalization was called for.
On Sept. 15, 2006, two days before Chasse’s death, a caseworker accompanied by a police officer conducted a welfare check at his apartment at Northwest Broadway near West Burnside Street, intending to try to put a mental- health hold on Chasse, only to have Chasse flee when he saw the officer.
• The mayor and the police chief — Potter and Sizer
In the wake of Chasse’s death, Potter said Sizer told him the officers who arrested Chasse were under pressure to reduce public drunkenness and other public antisocial activities. The family’s lawsuit faults a variety of city policies, including what it calls an unwritten one of trying to remove the mentally ill from downtown.
Finally, it claims that Portland city officials should have known that Humphreys had a history of excessive force and misconduct. After Chasse’s death, a Portland Tribune public records request showed that Humphreys was one of the most prolific users of force in the police bureau, with 78 reported incidents in his seven years on the force.
Though critics claim a variety of breakdowns and misconduct led to Chasse’s death, a federal court hearing in June suggested his family’s lawsuit faces tough odds.
There, in the federal courthouse downtown, Steenson, wearing a dark suit, sat alone at one table while his four opposing lawyers —one for the county, two for the city and one for AMR — sat at two others.
Judge Garr King, a former Multnomah County prosecutor, was openly skeptical of some of Steenson’s legal arguments, and ruled against him by directing that the case be split into two. One trial will involve the officers and the other will consider whether city policies were to blame. Legal observers say the ruling will make the case more difficult for the family to win.
Renaud, however, thinks the family has a strong case. “They are very determined,” he said. “They’re not going to settle. So it’s going to be public, and it’s going to be ugly.”
EXTRA – What Happened to James Chasse