JAMES CHASSE JR'S DEATH PROMPTS CHANGES, LAWSUIT, MORE QUESTIONS Although the City Auditor's Independent Police Review Division (IPR) repeatedly states that one incident does not form a solid basis for recommending changes to the Police Bureau's policies, the September 17th in-custody death of James Chasse, Jr. (PPR #40) has already proven that theory wrong. In addition to the expansion of Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, the Bureau has also instituted a new policy regarding medical transportation-- solely as a response to Chasse's death at the hands of Portland Police. More changes may also be on the way if the family prevails in a lawsuit they filed against the City in February. In addition to monetary relief they are seeking numerous improvements to the City's deadly force policy.
When releasing the legal complaint to the media, Chasse family attorney Tom Steenson also revealed medical information from an independent autopsy that shows James Chasse could have survived if he had received medical treatment at the scene where officers tackled, kicked, punched, and tasered him. Furthermore, Steenson says, the Medical Examiner's report, which called Chasse's death an "accident" due to "blunt force trauma to the chest" and blamed his injuries on a fall to the ground, mis-identified which of his bones were broken. Chasse's clavicle was broken, likely by a kick or strike, and 11 of his 12 left back ribs were broken--and some pulverized--likely by strikes or kicks after he had been taken to the ground. In part referring to a "spit sock" put over his head at the jail as he bled from the mouth and passed out, the family described James' treatment as "torture."
To follow up on these claims and to keep the media and the community focused on the fact that this death was a result of police violence and not due to Chasse's mental illness, the Justice for James Chasse Jr. Committee was formed. (Portland Copwatch is participating in an advisory role.) The day after the family's news conference, the Committee issued a news release calling for the involved officers, Officer Christopher Humphreys, Sgt. Kyle Nice, and Deputy Bret Burton, to be fired.
As for the City's response, Mayor Tom Potter, who serves as Police Commissioner and is a former police chief, caused quite a stir among the rank-and-file by mentioning the Chasse incident in his January "State of the City" address. He said, "the death of a man in custody has shaken our community in profound ways...We must restore the trust between the police and the community that I know has been eroded by James Chasse's tragic death."
In response, Portland Police Association (PPA) President Robert King wrote a scathing letter, noting that the Mayor had praised his fellow City Council members, noted briefly that crime is down and that residents feel safer, but didn't thank the police "who work day and night to keep our city safe" (Rap Sheet, February 2007). Potter responded to the letter by writing about his support for the police and their "acts of valor" but emphasized that with the shut down of much of the mental health support system in Multnomah County, police are more likely to encounter civilians with mental health problems. Unfortunately, he then said there would be some contacts with such individuals that will "require the use of force."
Potter's speech also highlighted the new CIT training, which in February began educating all officers who work the streets with 40 hours of classes. As reported by new CIT head Lt. Sara Westbrook at the February 20 Chief's Forum, the new training involves videotaped interviews with mental health "consumers," reviewing episodes of "Cops" to show what not to do, and encourages officers to talk about mental illness in their own families. When members of the Forum, supposedly the links to the rest of the community, asked to sit in on some of the 40 hours of training, Westbrook declined on the basis of the officers' personal stories being shared (Oregonian, February 21). Sadly, this is a typical "circling of the wagons" in which the Bureau will shut citizens out of the full 40 hours because of some small part of the training that probably lasts less than one hour.
The other major change, also announced at the Forum, is a new Directive on medical transportation. After James Chasse lost consciousness, Emergency Medical Services personnel (EMS) arrived on scene and (inexplicably) found his vital signs normal, allowing the police to bring Chasse to jail. Directive 630.45 now requires officers to report on any force they have used, and medical transportation for anyone who is seriously injured, unconscious, suffering a seizure, or other criteria. If the EMS allow police to take the person to jail, they have to sign a form which will then be taken to the jail staff. However, this form, due to medical privacy laws, will then be destroyed--breaking the paper trail that could exonerate the police of wrongdoing. Surprisingly, Portland Copwatch and PPA President King agreed that there must be a way to keep that paper trail. Our suggestion: have a tear-sheet that is signed by the EMS that says "this patient may be released to police custody" or "this patient needs to go immediately to the hospital."
As noted above, both the CIT training and the medical transport Directive were created by the police voluntarily in response to serious issues surrounding this one high profile case. Meanwhile, the IPR's Citizen Review Committee continues its months of deliberating on recommendations on policies (see article), having made only two policy recommendations in its five year existence, not counting the 100 plus recommendations of the external Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC, see article).
Regarding the changes requested by the family, attorney Steenson mentioned PARC directly in requesting that the city:
* Create an independent review system for shootings and deaths in custody;
The lawsuit also recommends the Bureau:
This last recommendation echoes the challenge filed for James Jahar Perez's family that went to Federal Court last fall (see PPR #40).
The Mayor put together a "Mental Health Working Group" in collaboration with Senator Avel Gordly, which made recommendations to be released in late April including the CIT training, which was already underway, and increasing money for the non-profit Project Respond and state agencies, with a total price tag of $6 million. It is unclear who will pay for many of the recommended solutions.
Cops other than King also dismiss critics of Chasse's death. In an Oregonian op-ed (March 6), Officer Stuart Palmiter defends the CIT and heralds its preventing people from committing suicide. His compassion quickly gives way as he explains when a person runs away and becomes "combative"--"It's a fight, and the community must understand there can be only one winner--the police officer."
PPA Vice President Sgt. Daryl Turner wrote that the Mayor is wasting money on CIT training, urging him to fund a triage center or expand Project Respond (January Rap Sheet). Ignoring the fact that police caused the injuries that killed Chasse, Turner complains, "Even though medical personnel were involved at the incident and at the Multnomah County Detention Center, the turd falls in our pocket."
For more information on the Justice Committee visit http://www.justiceforjameschasse.org.
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