Portland Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman explains city’s decision to settle Chasse case for $1.6 million

From the The Oregonian, May 11, 2010

Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman issued an apology this afternoon to the family of James P. Chasse Jr. as he announced the $1.6 million settlement the city reached with the Chasse family in their federal wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit against Portland police.

Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman and deputy city attorney Jim Rice hold a press conference

Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman and deputy city attorney Jim Rice hold a press conference

The city of Portland and the Chasse family reached the deal — the largest settlement of a tort claim in the city’s history — about 4 p.m. Monday after a full day of negotiations with U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken mediating. It still must be approved by the City Council, possibly as early as next Wednesday.

“I believe this proposal to be in the best interest of our city and community,” Saltzman said, speaking in the atrium of City Hall. “I would like to express my deepest apology on behalf of the city to the Chasse family for the loss of their son and brother.”

Saltzman said both sides wanted to avoid a trial, and acknowledged that had the case gone to trial in U.S. District Court, “probably the city’s image would be tarnished.”

Under the terms of the settlement, the city is expected to release the Portland police internal affairs investigative report and its training division’s examination of the Sept. 17, 2006, death in-custody case.

Both documents had been part of a court protective order while the lawsuit was pending. Saltzman said the documents would be released “soon,” noting that certain personal information has to be redacted before their release.

“I believe the public needs to see and fully understand the events leading up to Chasse’s death,” Saltzman said.

Tom Steenson, the Chasse family attorney, said the family is hopeful that sharing the police investigative reports and training documents from the Chasse case will “help the public in its quest for a more open and accountable Portland Police Bureau.”

The family believed that James Chasse Jr. “would have wanted the truth to come out by settling the case now” and thanked the community for supporting the family over the past 3 1/2 years, according to a statement Steenson released today.

Police Chief Rosie Sizer, in a prepared statement, said she was “relieved” by the settlement.

“And I believe that the Chasse family deserves compensation for their loss,” Sizer wrote. “I hope that James Chasse’s family also takes some comfort in the changes that the Portland police has made.”

But Sizer, who said she felt frustrated by not being able to publicly address the death-in-custody case because of the pending litigation, said today that she believes the police bureau and officers involved “have been unfairly demonized.” She called Chasse’s death a “horrible accident and not a ‘beating death,’ as Chasse’s family lawyer has argued.

Saltzman said he hopes with the settlement that the city can “begin to heal from the tragic death” of Chasse. He said the case pushed the city and county to look at how to improve services to the mentally ill, and the police bureau to improve its medical transport policy and extend crisis intervention training to all officers.

The city’s self-insurer will cover the initial $1 million, and its secondary insurance carrier will cover the remainder. None of the settlement award will come from the general fund, Saltzman said.

City Attorney Linda Meng said the city has spent more than $1 million in labor, and about $220,000 in external costs, such as paying for experts, travel, and depositions.

In a document filed in court Monday, U.S. District Court clerk Mary L. Moran filed an “order of dismissal” in the case.

The excessive force and wrongful death case involving Chasse, a 42-year-old who suffered from schizophrenia, was scheduled to go to trial next month before U.S. District Judge Garr King.

Two other defendants, Multnomah County and ambulance company American Medical Response Northwest Inc., previously settled with the family.

The county settled last summer for $925,000, removing the county and its employees as defendants. The employees included deputy Bret Burton, now a Portland police officer, who was involved in the initial struggle with Chasse and jail nurses who were accused of failing to examine or treat Chasse or call an ambulance.

AMR settled its part of the case last December for a reported $600,000. Its paramedics were accused of failing to follow their own procedures and protocols in dealing with patients who have trauma or are in altered mental states.

An April filing by the Chasse family said the city had not made an independent offer to settle since October 2007.

In addition, the city had insisted that any settlement would aim to keep secret the investigations into Chasse’s death and related training issues, family attorney Tom Steenson wrote.

The city had said in an earlier filing that the Chasse family had “declined reasonable efforts to settle.”

The original incident began when officers, including Sgt. Kyle Nice and Officer Chris Humphreys, chased Chasse down, believing he had urinated in the street. Officers knocked him to the ground at Northwest Everett Street and 13th Avenue, and struggled to handcuff him.

AMR paramedics were called to the scene but said his vital signs were normal.

Chasse was taken to the Multnomah County Detention Center and appeared to suffer a seizure while in a holding cell. The jail nurse said the jail would not book him.

Police then decided to take him to a hospital. He died in the back of the patrol car.

An autopsy revealed that Chasse died of broad-based blunt-force trauma to the chest. Among the injuries, he had 26 breaks to 16 ribs, some of which punctured a lung.

Asked today if the city still believes Chasse died of excited delirium, as city court papers had suggested, Saltzman deflected the question. “I think the point is we’re not going to trial.”

In response to a question about the Chasse family’s allegation that the officers tried to cover up an assault of Chasse by suggesting they found cocaine on Chasse, Deputy City Attorney Jim Rice said, “I don’t think there’s any cover up shown in this case.”

When asked where the mayor was, Saltzman looked from side to side, and quipped, “I don’t know.”

Later, Mayor Sam Adams released a prepared statement, saying the settlement closes a “very troubling chapter” in the relationship between the Police Bureau and the residents of the city.

“The Chasse family has had to endure a very public examination of what is, at the end of the day, a very personal matter – the death of a loved one and the ability to know the facts, grieve the loss, and begin to move on. Likewise, the Portland Police Bureau has operated under increased scrutiny, especially in cases involving mental illness. And while there have been positive developments in how the police manage issues of use of force and medical transport, we need to be more proactive in making additional improvements, ” the mayor said.

Steenson attended the City Hall news conference. At the end, as he walked off, Saltzman told him, “I appreciate the settlement.”