Cop in video: ‘We tackled’ Chasse – Officer’s early account of fracas at odds with official statement
As Police Chief Rosie Sizer continues to weigh possible discipline for officers involved in the controversial 2006 death of James Chasse Jr., a jail video obtained by the Portland Tribune raises the question of whether Portland Police officer Christopher Humphreys was truthful with investigators in the case.On Sept. 17, 2006, Humphreys, Sgt. Kyle Nice and Sheriff’s Deputy Bret Burton gave chase to Chasse, whom they suspected of having been urinating in public in Northwest Portland near the Bluehour restaurant.
The officers subdued Chasse — who resisted furiously, according to eye witnesses — and took him to jail. Nurses there refused to accept him due to the extent of his injuries. The officers then took him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:04 p.m.
A medical examiner the next day conducted an autopsy and found that Chasse, a paranoid schizophrenic, died of “blunt force trauma.” The 42-year-old, 145-pound man suffered at least 26 broken and shattered bones in his rib cage and a punctured left lung.
The fact that no Portland officers personally admitted exerting enough force to cause so many injuries has led to continuing questions about how Chasse died.
However, the video — recorded in the booking area of the jail after Chasse was put in solitary confinement but before he died— appears to shed light on that mystery. That’s because Humphreys admits in it that “we tackled” Chasse to subdue him before the arrest —which appears to significantly contradict what Humphreys told criminal detectives three days later.
According to a transcript of his Sept. 20, 2006, interview with Detective Lynn Courtney, Humphreys said that he “shoved” Chasse and fell past him to land squarely onto the sidewalk, as opposed to falling on top of Chasse while tackling him. Also, Humphreys — who outweighed Chasse by about 100 pounds — claimed he did not recall how Chasse fell, on his face or otherwise.
Humphreys’ account to the detective — provided while accompanied by a criminal defense lawyer, Steve Myers — would appear to exonerate the officer of culpability in Chasse’s death.
Video gives another story
However, a Portland Tribune review of the jail video shows that on the night in question, less than an hour after the initial 5:18 p.m. police contact with Chasse, Humphreys gave a significantly different version to jail deputies in the booking area.“He fell hard,” Humphreys said at 6:14 p.m. to two jail deputies, according to the video. “… we tackled him.”
As Humphreys spoke, Sheriff’s Deputy Bret Burton, while standing next to him in the booking area, held his arms in a huglike motion while leaning forward, apparently providing color for Humphreys’ account. Then Burton appeared to simulate the impact of Chasse hitting the ground: “Doofh!” he said.
While Humphreys’ account to jail deputies seems at odds with what he later told detectives, the initial version is consistent with eyewitness accounts.
“A straight bearhug-type tackle” is how Nice described Humphrey’s takedown of Chasse to detectives, echoing other witnesses.
Besides shedding light on the lingering questions around Chasse’s death, the new information is significant because an officer who is found to have lied in an official investigation can be disciplined and even terminated.
Moreover, the contrasting statements by Humphreys could become a factor in the Chasse family’s wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Portland.
Bureau, police union mum
The Tribune obtained the video recording from the family’s lawyer, Tom Steenson, who obtained it through a public records request. Steenson hired a consulting firm founded by two former FBI agents to reduce the recording’s background noise.
“It’s basically getting rid of static,” Steenson said of the consulting firm’s services. He declined to otherwise comment.
Portland Police spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz declined to comment on the discrepancy between what Humphreys says on the video and what he told detectives.
Schmautz said Chief Sizer could not comment on the pending case either. No current officers would comment on the record about the discrepancy when contacted by the Portland Tribune, and Portland Police Association President Robert King did not respond to voice-mails.However, when told of the discrepancy between Humphreys’ accounts, retired Portland officer Tom Mack, a frequent critic of police bureau administration, said,“I don’t necessarily have a problem with police tackling people. But I do believe that when asked, you should say what you did and how you did it.” Of the city attorneys handling the case, he added, “Clearly they have a problem.”
City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who has followed the case in the news, and who has been critical of Sizer, said that any conflict in Humphreys’ statements should be investigated. “If there are misleading statements, if there are omissions that have impact, (they) should result in severe consequences.”
The Portland Police Bureau no longer trains its officers to tackle subjects, due to the possibility of injury. Rather, they are trained to push suspects near the shoulder blades in an attempt to push them over.
According to Schmautz, the city was unable to enhance the video sufficiently to understand Humphreys’ statements.
Retired Capt. C.W. Jensen formerly headed the bureau’s internal affairs unit that investigates alleged officer misconduct. Contacted by the Tribune, he said that while he thinks Humphreys’ comments are open to interpretation, the video should have been enhanced properly by the city.
“This isn’t 1960. That technology is available,” he said.
This is not the first time a recording has become an issue in an arrest by Humphreys.
In 2000, based on a recording of a Humphreys’ arrest that was made without his knowledge, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office referred the arrest to the U.S. Attorney’s office for possible federal criminal charges against the police officer, documents show.
In the case in question, a man pulled over by Humphreys was charged with possession of a controlled substance after Humphreys found drugs in his car. Humphreys said the driver, Gary Prein, gave his consent to the search which produced the drugs.
However, the defendant’s lawyer claimed Humphreys never obtained his client’s consent before searching the vehicle. He submitted a video to prosecutors from a camera that Prein had turned on during the arrest.
While the video did not pick up anything, its audio microphone caught parts of Prein’s interaction with Humphreys. On the recording, Prein cannot be heard giving his consent, according to the prosecutors who reviewed the recording.
Mark McDonnell, the prosecutor in that case, told the Portland Tribune that while the recording and questions raised were sufficient to cause him to halt his prosecution of Prein, it was not clear enough to prove Humphreys had lied.
McDonnell’s account is substantiated by an Oct. 12, 2000, letter to John Bradley, a top assistant to Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk. In it, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Peifer wrote that based on interviewing Prein and reviewing the recording, his office would be unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Humpheys had lied.
McDonnell told the Tribune that after the Prein case was dropped, he tracked Humphreys’ cases, and did not see any further evidence of untruthfulness.
For a local prosecutor to refer a police officer to the U.S. Attorney for possible criminal charges is unusual. However, Bradley said the referral may have been because Oregon law barred his office from using a recording made without Humphreys’ consent, while federal authorities did not face the same prohibition.