Police chief says Chasse internal review will be released — eventually

Rosie Sizer, Portland Police Bureau

Rosie Sizer, Portland Police Bureau

From The Oregonian, September 14 2009

Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer said today she expects the police internal review of James P. Chasse Jr.’s death to be released before Chasse’s civil lawsuit goes to trial in federal court in March.

Sizer’s statement comes three days before a petition signed by at least 189 people is expected to be dropped off at City Hall Thursday, calling for the immediate release of the investigation.

Thursday marks the third-anniversary of Chasse’s death in police custody. The petition calls the delay in the release of the internal review alarming and unwarranted.

Sizer said the federal civil rights lawsuit brought by Chasse’s family against the city and others, as well as the number of people involved in the case, has “complicated and lengthened the review process.”

“We have one more internal process to complete prior to the release of our findings,” Sizer wrote in a prepared statement. “The entire process has taken longer than I had hoped and longer than is the norm for officer-involved shootings and in-custody death cases.”

Internal police reviews of police shootings and deaths in custody have ranged from about eight months to a 1-1/2 years, Sizer said.

Chasse, 42, who suffered from schizophrenia, died in police custody Sept. 17, 2006. Two Portland officers, Officer Christopher Humphreys and Sgt. Kyle Nice, and then-Multnomah County sheriff’s Deputy Bret Burton (now a Portland officer) struggled to arrest Chasse after one of the officers said he appeared to be urinating in the street. Police said he ran when they approached. They chased him, knocked him to the ground and struggled to handcuff him.

Ambulance medics called to the scene did not transport him to a hospital, saying Chasse’s vital signs were normal. But jail staff refused to book him because of his physical condition. Chasse died in police custody on the way to a hospital from broad-based blunt-force trauma to the chest.

The federal lawsuit pending against the city and American Medical Response paramedics accuses officers of using excessive force and denying Chasse appropriate medical attention. The suit alleges the paramedics also failed to provide appropriate medical care. A trial has been set for March 16.

Multnomah County, which was also sued, this summer approved a record $925,000 settlement to Chasse’s family.

As part of the suit, Chasse’s family also sought to argue that the officers involved discriminated against Chasse because of his mental illness. But U.S. District Judge Garr M. King threw out that allegation in a Sept. 1 ruling, finding plaintiffs hadn’t provided enough evidence.

In legal documents, Chasse’s family attorney, Tom Steenson, had argued that Humphreys and Nice chose to stop Chasse, chased him and tackled him, and then failed to send him to the hospital by ambulance — nor drove Chasse to the closest hospital after the jail refused to book him — because of Chasse’s mental illness.

But the judge said that Steenson failed to show that the officers treated “similarly situated individuals” who were not mentally ill any differently.

The city argued there was no evidence that Humphreys and Nice treated Chasse differently based on his mental illness because the officers hadn’t encountered Chasse before Sept. 17, 2006, and didn’t know he was mentally ill.

Chasse’s attorney was out of town Monday, but his legal assistant said he’s preparing for trial.

Michael Hopcroft, a board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland, argued in an opinion piece that ran in The Oregonian last weekend that the bureau’s delay in releasing its internal review was financial.

“The results of the internal investigation may affect public opinion, and, assuming it shows the city at fault, it’s in the best financial interest of the city to withhold its release. Thus, the truth about what happened and accountability for it has become tangled in shrouds of politics and money,” Hopcroft wrote.

In depositions in preparation for the federal trial, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy said Chasse suffered 46 separate abrasions or contusions on his body, including six to the head and 19 strikes to the torso. Fractures to his back ribs also probably did not result from Chasse getting knocked to the ground or someone falling on top of him, but more likely resulted from a kick or knee-drop, state medical examiner Dr. Karen Gunson said.

Had he received proper medical attention at the scene or been taken to a hospital right away, Gunson concluded, Chasse probably would have lived.