The county’s no-fault settlement

Steve Duin

Steve Duin

Editorial column by Steve Duin from The Oregonian, June 30 2009

Help me with this:

How does Multnomah County conclude it is liable for $925,000 in collective damages in the death of James Chasse without establishing 10 cents of individual blame?

Doesn’t the county’s decision to settle with the family guarantee that no one on the county payroll will be held accountable for his death?

And is it possible this settlement — almost five times larger than any in county history — was negotiated because the powers that be want to avoid the civil trial that might finally affix specific culpability in this case?

In the 33 months since Chasse died with 16 broken ribs and massive internal bleeding after being tackled by Portland police in the Pearl District, then kicked by officers in the head and chest according to witnesses, I can find no evidence that anyone has been fired, fined, suspended, sanctioned or, heck, even scolded, for the treatment the 42-year-old schizophrenic received in the last two hours of his life.

“To see a person essentially beaten to death for urinating on a tree is beyond senseless. There’s something really wrong,” said Don Moore, board head of the Multnomah County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2006 when Chasse died.

Yet the various custodians of the public trust have gone out of their way to ensure that while everyone shares in the tragedy — including the taxpayers who will pay the settlement — no one will ever be saddled with responsibility for it.

District Attorney Mike Schrunk never held an inquest into Chasse’s death. A Multnomah County grand jury found no criminal wrongdoing.

Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer has yet to issue her conclusions on the internal affairs investigation; she labeled the interminable wait for those conclusions “disappointing” nine months ago. The bureau did, however, hire Bret Barton, the Multnomah County sheriff’s deputy who had joined two Portland cops in chasing Chasse down.

And while former Mayor Tom Potter mandated crisis intervention training — the value of which is derided by the police union mouthpieces — after Chasse’s death, the police still don’t define blows to the head as a use of deadly force.

When I asked county attorney Agnes Sowle about settling a case in which no individual fault is established, she reminded me that the county often makes business decisions that focus on the best interest of the taxpayers, not the culpability of county employees.

Two weeks ago, she noted, the county went to trial in a case involving an uncooperative inductee at the detention center: “A jury awarded $8,500 for a bump on the head for a guy who’d been arrested and was not being helpful about getting out of the car.”

All too often, in other words, the county needs to cut its losses, not establish blame. When I asked whether taxpayers weren’t better served, in the long run, by a trial that finally set the record straight, Sowle sighed and said she wished she still had my romantic notions about justice and the law.

Moore and the police agree there’s a crisis among the mentally ill and you don’t want the cops to be the de-facto entry point to the county’s overmatched mental health services.

That’s not much of a consensus to build on. It may be that so many people screwed up here — the cops, the ambulance drivers, the jailhouse crew and Chasse himself — that assigning blame is futile.

But in the absence of that exercise, no one is motivated to change. It’s a painfully short jump from “not my fault” to “not my problem,” and the county’s $925,000 payout just encouraged a lot of folks to take the plunge.