A protest is planned today to keep alive the memory of James Chasse, a mentally ill man who died a year ago in the custody of Portland police
One year after James P. Chasse Jr. died while in police custody, emotions are still raw.
The grainy cell phone image of the slender 42-year-old man lying cuffed, face-down on the sidewalk as officers, firefighters and paramedics stand by haunts those who say the police beat the schizophrenic man to death.
Police officers, who recoil at that accusation, are frustrated at what they see as an unfair attack on their integrity by people who don’t understand the realities of their job. Each year, police encounter thousands of mentally ill people — some harmless, some violent — and officers most often resolve those encounters peacefully. Accidents, however, do happen, they say.
But people pushing for police accountability, especially those who knew Chasse, say they suspect a cover-up: A state medical examiner listed Chasse’s cause of death as blunt-force trauma to his chest from falling to the pavement or from someone falling on him, not from the kicks and punches dealt by police in an attempt to subdue him. A grand jury exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing the three officers involved. The Police Bureau hasn’t completed an internal inquiry into the death.
Protesters plan to stand across the street from Central Precinct starting at 8 a.m. today, then join other activists outside City Hall at 4 p.m.
“If you believe we beat him to death, then you’re in a completely different place than if you believe he died because someone fell on him,” police spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz said. “And it’s very difficult to have a discussion.”
In response to a lawsuit claiming excessive use of force, filed by Chasse’s family earlier this year, the city attorney’s office last month filed a motion to fight the public release of an internal investigation that will determine whether officers violated bureau policy and a training review that could suggest changes to police tactics. Attorneys say they want to protect officers’ privacy and that releasing information about tactics could jeopardize public safety.
The legal maneuver disconcerts critics such as Dan Handelman, a spokesman for the citizens group Portland Copwatch.
“They’re trying to make an argument that we shouldn’t know,” Handelman said.
Chasse’s death stirred such passion because he wasn’t armed or posing a danger to others. What’s more, the struggle leading up to Chasse’s death happened in one of the swankiest parts of the city, the Pearl District, in front of a restaurant full of people.
Doris Cameron-Minard, past president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Oregon, said the case attracts attention because it encapsulates so many of the problems that police have with the mentally ill.
The following account of what happened is based on official reports and witness statements.
When Officer Christopher Humphreys thought he saw Chasse urinating in the Pearl District the afternoon of Sept. 17, 2006, he assumed he was looking at a drunk or a drug addict. He didn’t realize the man was mentally ill.
When officers called out, Chasse flashed a look of terror and ran. The police chased him. Humphreys, who weighed about 100 pounds more than Chasse, later told detectives that he caught up to Chasse and shoved him down. Some witnesses described it as a tackle.
Although the medical examiner later said Chasse probably already had been dealt the fatal blow by then, witnesses and police alike were amazed at how Chasse squirmed with unusual strength.
Two other officers — Sgt. Kyle Nice and Multnomah County Deputy Brett Burton joined in the fight to subdue Chasse — kicking, punching and shocking him with a Taser as he screamed and tried to bite them. Then he suddenly went limp.
American Medical Response paramedics who examined Chasse minutes later said he was in good enough shape to go to jail. According to a bystander, Chasse begged paramedics not to leave him.
Officers tied his feet to his hands in a “hog-tie” and drove him to jail. A jail nurse, who looked at Chasse through the window of a holding cell for less than 90 seconds, thought he might be faking a seizure. She told officers he had to go to the hospital. Instead of calling an ambulance, officers took him in their patrol car.
Chasse slumped over in the back seat, and officers pulled over to start giving him chest compressions. He died, one hour and 45 minutes after he encountered officers. He had 16 broken ribs, a punctured lung and massive internal bleeding.
“He was this innocent victim,” said Cameron-Minard, describing the significance of the case. “It wasn’t just ‘He had a gun, he pointed it, and they shot back.’ “
Mayor Tom Potter, who also is police commissioner, reacted to Chasse’s death by ordering every Portland patrol officer and sergeant to undergo crisis-intervention training, at a cost of $500,000. So far this year, 200 officers, including Multnomah County deputies, have completed the 40-hour course that trains officers to better identify and deal with the mentally ill.
The Legislature passed a law requiring all recruits at the state’s police academy to undergo 24 hours of crisis-intervention training.
“There’s a trust problem”
Although the new training requirements have garnered widespread praise, some advocates for the mentally ill say a police culture of insensitivity has not changed.
Jason Renaud, a volunteer at the Mental Health Association of Portland and a high school friend of Chasse’s, said families of mentally ill people don’t feel comfortable calling on Portland police when loved ones need help.
Concern is so widespread that his nonprofit advocacy organization has received about 500 calls and e-mails about Chasse’s death in the past year.
“There’s a trust problem,” Renaud said. Renaud, on the other hand, has respect for the work of many officers.
“My experience is the police department (is made up of) professional people who care a lot and have a difficult job,” Renaud said. “The mental health system is in shambles, and they get stuck with it. And while they get stuck with it, it is their job.”
Renaud said the response of some members of the bureau to Chasse’s death has fueled the lack of trust.
In June, police officers hauled citizen activist Richard Prentice off to a holding cell for posting a flier on the federal courthouse that harshly criticized the three officers involved in Chasse’s death. According to a complaint Prentice has filed with the city, two of those officers confronted Prentice in his holding cell.
And in the months after Chasse’s death, editorials printed in the police union’s newsletter also have undermined trust, Renaud said. One states that to believe Chasse’s death was caused by police negligence is “a display of insanity.”
The sentiments of union President Robert King have upset Renaud, too.
Last fall, after the Portland Tribune ran a story critical of officers who reported the most use of force, King gave the officers — including one who was involved in Chasse’s death — Starbucks gift cards as a show of support.
Union supports officers
King said he gave the Starbucks cards to the officers because he thought the article was unfair in that it did not adequately explain why officers sometimes have to use force as part of their jobs.
The union president said the officers involved in Chasse’s death followed their training and used the force necessary to stop a man who was flailing violently. They also were deeply affected by his death.
“It was accidental, and it was tragic,” King said. “And why people can’t understand that is lost on me.”
As state support for the mentally ill has receded, police officers increasingly encounter people in mental crisis. Officers used to have the option of delivering people to Dammasch State Hospital in Wilsonville, but it closed in 1995 as part of a national movement to de-institutionalize the mentally ill.
Another option disappeared in 2001 with the shuttering of a 24-hour crisis triage center in Portland where officers could drop off people for medical treatment. Today, officers take people who pose an imminent danger to themselves or others to hospital emergency rooms, which frequently release them within hours.
“What’s bothersome is the officers are the ones left to deal with the mentally ill,” King said. “The city of Portland, the county of Multnomah and the state of Oregon have abandoned them.”
Earlier this summer, officers responded eight times in three weeks to the home of a Southeast Portland woman who was threatening to kill herself. Seven times, they drove her to a local hospital for evaluation. Each time, she was quickly released and they were called to her home again.
Officers collaborated with the head of the bureau’s new crisis-intervention-training program and helped get the woman committed to the state mental system.
Liesbeth Gerritsen, the head of the training program, said it’s making a difference. She quoted an officer who told her that he’d changed his attitude about a mentally ill man he frequently sees in the field.
“Before, I kind of thought he was a jerk. But now I feel kind of sorry for him,” Gerritsen remembers the officer telling her after he completed the course. “For me, as a trainer, that made me really happy.”
Police Chief Rosie Sizer, a big supporter of crisis-intervention training, opens each 40-hour course in person, reminding officers that their very presence may intimidate some.
“What we often fail to realize is how much people fear us,” Sizer said.
The bureau has instituted other changes: Officers no longer take people who have been in a prolonged struggle to the hospital without a paramedic’s approval. They are also required to tell medics about any force applied to a subject, something that wasn’t fully communicated in Chasse’s case.
Advocates for the mentally ill are still pushing for a 24-hour crisis triage center. Efforts to get money from the Legislature failed, but Multnomah County Commissioner Lisa Naito has proposed using some of the revenue from existing business income taxes to pay for the center.
Hold officers accountable
Copwatch’s Handelman said he supports many of the proposals suggested after Chasse’s death, such as reopening the triage center and providing more housing for the mentally ill. But he said that none of those measures addresses the reasons Chasse died.
Handelman wants the focus to stay on holding the officers and the justice system accountable.
He said the public doesn’t know how aggressively prosecutors questioned witnesses during the grand jury proceedings. They don’t know whether police followed their policies and training, and if so, whether those need to be changed.
To learn the answers, Handelman said, the public needs to see the grand jury transcripts and the internal investigative files that the city doesn’t want released.
“It’s about the transparency of the system and holding the officers accountable and making sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again,” Handelman said.