A Multnomah County grand jury Tuesday found no criminal wrongdoing by police or others in the Sept. 17 death of James P. Chasse Jr., after a police inquiry concluded that Chasse died from multiple rib fractures once an officer pushed him to the ground and fell on top of him.
“Officer (Christopher) Humphreys accidentally and inadvertently landed on top of him,” said Sgt. George Burke, who supervises homicide detectives.
Chasse, a 42-year-old man who suffered from schizophrenia, had run from two Portland officers and a Multnomah County deputy sheriff when they saw him acting oddly and possibly urinating behind a tree in the Pearl District.
Chasse died from broad-based, blunt-force trauma to his chest suffered early in his encounter with authorities, state medical examiner Dr. Karen Gunson ruled. Gunson also called the death “accidental.” An autopsy showed he had 26 breaks in 16 ribs, some of which punctured his left lung and caused massive internal bleeding.
The seven-member grand jury ruled unanimously after deliberating for 20 to 25 minutes Tuesday afternoon and hearing testimony from 30 witnesses over five days, beginning Oct. 3. Seven of those witnesses were civilians who saw the police struggle with Chasse.).
Police Chief Rosie Sizer, calling Chasse’s case the most controversial incident in her short tenure as chief, said she and the Portland Police Bureau “regret” Chasse’s death in custody. She termed it a tragedy.
New policy in works
Though she would not comment on the officers’ actions until an internal review is done, the chief said Chasse’s case has prompted her to review and develop a new policy for how police interact and share information with ambulance medics and jail medical staff.
“I think that’s a rich area of policy work that we can do better on,” Sizer said.
The chief said she wants new recruits to get full crisis intervention training, and she will look for ways to extend the training to more veteran officers.
Mayor Tom Potter issued an apology to the Chasse family, but wouldn’t answer when asked whether he considered Chasse’s death an accident.
“The Chasse family has endured much heartache since James Chasse died, and for this I am truly sorry,” Potter said. “I personally feel the need to apologize when anyone dies in police custody, regardless of the cause, and I apologize to the Chasse family.”
The Police Bureau’s criminal investigation found that officers called for medical help when they noticed Chasse went unconscious. Ambulance medics found his vital signs to be normal and cleared him to be taken to jail.
A Portland officer signed the ambulance company’s medical waiver for Chasse, a step the officer thought was unusual and police called uncommon. Once Chasse arrived at the jail, a nurse evaluated Chasse through a cell door window, and police took Chasse to a hospital by patrol car because jail staff never signaled that Chasse was in a medical emergency. The officers involved were not specially trained to deal with the mentally ill.
Chasse’s death has disturbed many in the community. At least three witnesses to the police struggle with Chasse filed complaints of excessive force. The Mental Health Association of Portland has adopted his case as their advocacy project for 2006. His family has hired a prominent Portland civil-rights lawyer to investigate, and the mayor has promised a special council committee to study how the community can better protect the mentally ill.
Chasse’s family attorney Thomas Steenson declined to comment on the ruling Tuesday, saying the family probably would make a statement today.
Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk shared the investigative reports with Chasse’s family and asked whether they recommended any witnesses to call for the grand jury. One of the last witnesses called was William Brady, a former state medical examiner who often testifies on behalf of the defense, at the family’s request.
Results of police inquiry
After the grand jury ruling Tuesday afternoon, the Police Bureau presented the results of its criminal investigation into Chasse’s death.
That investigation revealed that at 5:08 p.m. Sept. 17, Central Precinct Sgt. Kyle Nice was at Northwest 18th Avenue and Everett Street with an intoxicated person. Officer Humphreys and sheriff’s deputy Brett Burton pulled up to assist Nice. Humphreys noticed Chasse across the street, walking into traffic and acting “suspicious and odd,” Burke said.
The officers cleared their contact with the intoxicated person at 5:16 p.m. Humphreys and Burton drove east on Northwest Everett. Humphreys thought he saw Chasse urinating behind a tree in the 1300 block of Everett and pulled to the curb. Burton tried to shout to Chasse and get his attention.
Burton told detectives that Chasse’s “eyes are big like he’s in terror,” Burke said. Chasse turned and ran, screaming “no,” police said.
Humphreys ran after Chasse, eastbound on Everett. He pushed Chasse with his left forearm to knock him down. Officers are trained to push a suspect to one side, and rush around to the other side to approach them, Burke said.
Instead, Humphreys, about 100 pounds heavier than the 5-foot-9, 145-pound Chasse, landed on top of him.
At that point, Nice grabbed Chasse’s left arm to get control of him, and Humphreys tried to control Chasse’s right arm. Chasse bit Nice on his left leg, and tried to bite him a second time, Burke said. Nice kicked Chasse in the chest and armpit area.
At 5:20 p.m., the officers called dispatch to send more officers.
Humphreys, still trying to control Chasse’s right arm, saw Chasse about to bite him and moved his arm away, according to police, “inadvertently” hitting Chasse in the face. Humphreys told detectives he struck Chasse in the head again with a closed fist when he saw Chasse try to bite him again.
Burton drew his Taser, and placed it to Chasse’s lower back to stun him once. The Taser cycled four times, as witnesses recounted, meaning Burton tried to use it four times, but it actually touched Chasse’s body once, police said.
By 5:22 p.m., the officers radioed that they had Chasse in custody. He was placed in maximum restraint, meaning his ankles were bound to his wrists, which were cuffed behind his back to keep him from kicking.
A minute later, at 5:23:04, Nice radioed for emergency medical help, saying Chasse was unconscious. At 5:25 p.m., ambulance medics arrived, followed by Portland Fire Bureau medics.
“This person then becomes their patient,” Burke said.
Chasse was lying on his side as medics evaluated him. They found his vital signs within normal range: his blood pressure 110/73; pulse 100 beats a minute; respiration rate 18 to 20 breaths a minute, and his glucose level normal.
Police said they didn’t know whether the officers had conveyed to the medics that they had used a Taser on Chasse. Police policy doesn’t require medical attention after a Taser is used in a close-contact, stun mode.
Humphreys asked the medics, “Is he good to go?”
An ambulance medic told the officer Chasse was OK to transport to jail, and asked Humphreys to sign a medical release form for Chasse, Burke said. Humphreys found that odd, but figured that he was asked to sign it because they weren’t about to uncuff Chasse, Burke said.
At 5:52:11, Humphreys and Burton arrived at jail. Chasse had his feet wedged under the car seat, and jail staff helped remove him from the patrol car as Chasse screamed and spit at them. The jail staff placed a “spit sock” of nylon material over Chasse’s head to keep him from spitting at them. Police said it would not have impaired Chasse’s breathing.
By 6:15 p.m., Chasse was placed in a separation cell. Humphreys noticed that Chasse suddenly stopped screaming and may have gone unconscious, Burke said.
A jail nurse evaluated Chasse through the cell door window, noticing Chasse acting like he was experiencing seizures, with blood around his mouth. Jail nurses alerted police that they’re not going to accept him for booking and had officers take him to Portland Adventist Hospital, the hospital the county contracts with.
Jail nurses never suggested to police they needed to move with urgency, Burke said.
“Because there was no information that Mr. Chasse was medically unstable, and he was conscious and talking at the time he was placed in the police car, officers began to transport him,” police said in prepared statements.
At 6:23 p.m., Humphreys and Burton took Chasse in their patrol car to the hospital. As they were heading north on Interstate 5 to I-84 east, Humphreys heard Chasse fall against a door. He said Chasse’s face was “ashen” color and he directed Burton to get off the freeway.
They took the 33rd Avenue exit off I-84, and called for medical help. At 6:29 p.m., Humphreys removed Chasse’s handcuffs and did chest compressions. A nearby resident, Jon Olson, who sells defibrillators, offered to hook Chasse up to the machine, but the machine advised: “Do not shock,” police said.
An ambulance arrived at 6:48 p.m. They reached the hospital at 6:51 p.m., and Chasse was pronounced dead at 7:04 p.m.
Gunson’s autopsy found that the fractures to Chasse’s rear and side ribs resulted from his fall to the ground, and Humphreys landing on top of him. The fractures to his front rib case, near his sternum, are consistent with CPR.
Call two days earlier
Two days before Chasse’s death, mental health specialists from Project Respond called for police to assist them at Chasse’s apartment on Northwest Broadway, because he was urinating in the hallway and off his medication, said Christine Mascal, a deputy district attorney who handled the grand jury case. By the time police arrived, Chasse had run out the door.
Robert King, president of the Portland Police Association, said it’s an “unrealistic expectation” for officers to be expected to recognize that a person on the street may be mentally ill. He said the death was a tragedy and the result of a “communitywide system failure,” that requires increased funding for services for the mentally ill.
Dan Handelman, of Portland Copwatch, called the grand jury ruling “disappointing, but not surprising.” He said he’s encouraged that the mayor and chief are pledging to improve the way the mental health and law enforcement communities work together. But he said Chasse did not die because of his mental illness, but because officers fractured his ribs and punctured his lungs.
Nice, Humphreys and Burton have been on paid leave while the investigation continued. They can now return to work. An internal police investigation will start, examining whether any of the officers violated police policies or training.