People's Police Report
Shootings & deaths
Three Years Later, Chasse Case Stirs More Controversy:
September 17, 2009 marked three years since the brutal in-custody death of James Chasse Jr. after Portland Police and a Multnomah County Sheriff (MCSO)'s Deputy tackled, kicked and tasered the 42-year-old. A few days earlier, the Bureau's "Use of Force Review Board" (UFRB) met in secret (as always), concluding there was no excessive force used, but that Sgt. Kyle Nice should have transported Chasse to the hospital because the Taser was used. As a result, Chief Sizer proposed suspending Nice for one week; Commissioner Dan Saltzman ordered Sizer to up that to two weeks and to apply it to Officer Christopher Humphreys as well. Either way, these are mild punishments. Meanwhile, a number of things happened: the community demanded that the officers resign; the City made new claims that Chasse died of "excited delirium"; Officer Humphreys was suspended in a new incident, in which he shot a 12-year-old African American girl with a "beanbag" shotgun at close range; and the police "union" came out swinging.
Weeks prior to Sizer announcing her proposed punishment for Nice, the Mental Health Association of Portland (MHAP) circulated a petition calling for the officers involved in Chasse's death to voluntarily resign from the force, asking City Council and other officials to encourage that action. They delivered over 250 signatures to City Hall on September 17. At about the same time, Portland Catholic Worker member Chani Geigle Teller was handing out flyers at City Hall demanding the removal of Nice, Humphreys and Burton (who moved from the MCSO to the PPB in 2007) from the Bureau. She then splashed water-soluble red paint on the entryway, awaiting her imminent arrest. Geigle Teller was originally booked on a misdemeanor Criminal Mischief charge, but it was upped to a felony because the paint allegedly cost over $1000 to clean up. The Portland Mercury reported September 24 that the City calculated 16 hours at $90 an hour, or $1440. Geigle Teller pleaded to a misdemeanor and was ordered to pay restitution.
Full disclosure: Geigle Teller is also a member of Portland Copwatch.
Sizer released the Internal Affairs (IAD) findings on September 23. PPB policy calls for a Taser victim to be transported to the hospital if, after being shocked with the 50,000 volt device, they exhibit certain behaviors that could indicate complications from the tasering. Nothing was said about the officers' kicks to Chasse's head, which should have been considered lethal force, or the fact that his ribs were broken in 26 places.
Chasse family attorney Tom Steenson felt Sizer's release of the Internal Affairs results violated the "gag order" imposed by Judge Garr King on the parties in the civil suit. King sided with the City, which claimed that the findings did not constitute "confidential" material from the case, and that lifting the order would taint the jury pool (Oregonian, October 29).
Exactly a week after Sizer's announcement, MHAP's Jason Renaud testified to Council with a seven point plan to increase community confidence in the police after Chasse's death. Portland Police Association (PPA) President Scott Westerman was there, accompanied by members of the PR firm Gallatin Public Affairs. Westerman responded to Renaud: "The issue that the PPA has with Renaud's seven requests is that he is specifically focusing on the three officers. If they're going to pull those three officers from patrol, the city may as well pull all police officers from the street, because any officer on the Portland Police Bureau that was present in that situation would have likely had the same outcome" ( Mercury Blog, Sept. 30). That statement is chilling, not comforting.
One day later, Auditor Lavonne Griffin Valade announced that through the Independent Police Review Division (IPR), she would be hiring an expert to review the closed investigation to ensure it was fair and thorough, and to examine why it took so long. Typical of the IPR, this effort is too little, too late: the IPR should have been investigating the incident from day one, especially when two witnesses filed complaints at the time. In addition, the first draft of the expert report is not due until April, 2010--a month after the civil trial was originally scheduled to take place (it has since been moved to June).
The IPR has not made any public statements about what involvement they did have, if any, in monitoring the IAD investigation, including its mandated role as a non-voting member at the UFRB hearing. More public transparency would boost the review board's credibility. After all, IPR has boasted that IAD voluntarily asks them to review complaints generated by officers against other officers, even though IPR's ordinance limits its scope to civilian complaints.
The next week, on October 8, MHAP held a news conference that featured Bob Joondeph of Disability Rights Oregon and Rev. LeRoy Haynes of the Albina Ministerial Alliance. Rev. Haynes said "Chasse cries out today from the grave for justice." The groups called for the officers to resign.
Portland Copwatch supports the call for the officers to resign, particularly since the City appears unwilling to fire them. It is not unheard of: Officer Jason Sery resigned not long after the controversial shooting of motorist James Jahar Perez in 2004 (PPR #32). On November 21, the Oregonian reported that Officer Humphreys applied for stress leave; perhaps the first step toward his resignation?
The MHAP demands resulted in an offer from Police Commissioner Saltzman to meet with mental health advocates in private, along with Chief Sizer, but the advocates refused unless the meeting would be public (Portland Mercury , October 15). Saltzman's ability to lead the Bureau became the subject of public discussion. Oregonian columnist Anna Griffin suggested that Mayor Adams should take over the Bureau, which has been led by Mayors (rather than other Commissioners) with few exceptions including the early 1980s.
At a hearing about the "Sidewalk Management Plan" on October 21, Commissioner Randy Leonard wrongly suggested that Chasse was homeless and had urinated on the street, but nonetheless righteously proclaimed his death was "completely unjustifiable and inexcusable." The next day, he told the press he thinks the city should pay the Chasse family for the incident: "We shouldn't have a judge tell us to do it." (Oregonian, October 23).
Not long after, Saltzman announced that he was recommending doubling Nice's punishment from 40 hours to 80 hours without pay, adding that Humphreys also should receive 80 hours of suspension ( Mercury Blog, November 4). Because Burton wasn't working for the PPB at the time, they cannot impose discipline on him; in fact, Burton refused to be interviewed by IAD until sometime in 2008, one of the reasons the investigation took so long.
Westerman and the PPA denounced the proposed suspensions as political, repeating that the UFRB had found the use of force against Chasse within policy. Perhaps realizing that their argument in court depends on that being true, the City filed papers in the civil suit claiming Chasse died not from blunt force trauma, as the Medical Examiner stated, but from "Excited Delirium." October was the first time any doctors' group in the country recognized this as an actual syndrome. The Academy of Emergency Physicians listed a number of symptoms including that people "display incredible strength, are impervious to pain, growl like an animal, are aggressive and take off their clothing because they become superheated" (Oregonian, November 19). Strangely, it mostly seems to be people who wrestle with police that die of "Excited Delirium."
About the biggest twist in the case wasn't even about Chasse himself: on November 14, Officer Humphreys shot a 12-year-old African American girl with a "beanbag" gun at close range. Her crime? She had taken the MAX light rail train though Officer Aaron Dauchy (#30873) recognized her as having been excluded. Readers of the PPR know that "bean bags" are really lead buckshot in nylon sacks that can kill a person if fired from under 10 feet (PPR #12). Thus, though Westerman claims the officer was justified in shooting the girl in the leg, we would argue that shooting her nearly point-blank was lethal force. It was a relief that Saltzman and Sizer acted quickly in this case and suspended Humphreys while an investigation was conducted.
This led the PPA to go berserk, holding a news conference on the steps of the Justice Center with Westerman flanked by officers in uniform (in apparent violation of their directives), and then putting Saltzman and Sizer to a vote of no confidence in late November. Saltzman and Sizer moved Humpreys back onto desk duty --but not back on the street-- and the "union" agreed not to release the results of their vote.
In addition to beating Chasse and then bragging about how hard he went down when tackled (PPR #46), Humphreys cost the City $133,000 for dragging Chaz Miller out of a truck and beating him with a baton 20 times in 2003 (PPR #40), and is facing a lawsuit for assaulting Lisa Ann Coppock, a woman of diminished mental capacity in 2008 (PPR #47).
While public sentiment is oddly mixed about the "beanbag" shooting, the community seems to continue to be outraged about what happened to James Chasse. The Oregonian ran two editorials, the first on September 25 decrying that Sizer found the use of force "acceptable"- -though she technically never used that word, their headline writer did--and another on November 9 calling for an overhaul of the accountability system. Significantly, the second editorial stated that "With all of the responsibility for the Police Bureau residing in one commissioner, it becomes easy for the others to dodge their own responsibilities for the general welfare of the city."
Echoing this idea, Renaud wrote an op-ed, the fourth from the MHAP or its allies in two months (after Michael Hopcroft on September 12, Michael Bailey on October 2, and Mary Wheeler on October 23). Adding four new points to the seven he laid on Council, Renaud suggested that all five commissioners be given responsibility for the Bureau. Imagine five elected officials, all charged with oversight, and all taking equal heat when the cops go out of control. Not a bad plan at all.
Info including email addresses for city officials and the officers is on the Mental Health Association of Portland website: http://www.mentalhealthportland.org
According to the Willamette Week (9/16), the City of Portland had spent $110,000 defending itself in the Chasse case as of mid-September. If the City has to pay out more than $1 million, their self- insurance gives way to a policy from Chartis, formerly known as AIG. For other info on Chasse see "Rapping Back" in this issue.
Portland Copwatch is a grassroots, volunteer organization promoting police accountability through citizen action.