People's Police Report
Shootings & deaths
Man Dies from Internal Injuries After Portland Police Tackle, Beat Him for "Acting Bizarre"
On September 17, Officer Christopher Humphreys (#32784), Sergeant Kyle Nice (#26853) and Multnomah County Deputy Brett Burton chased and beat 42-year-old James Chasse, Jr. after seeing him allegedly "acting bizarre" in Northwest Portland. For this crime, Chasse ended up dead from internal injuries.
Chasse allegedly ran away in a wide-eyed panic; Humphreys tackled him. As the officers struggled with Chasse, they kicked him in the chest and in the head, Burton tasered him, and Humphreys punched him in the face. Witnesses say Chasse appeared to have passed out before an ambulance arrived. After the EMTs (inexplicably) declared his vital signs to be normal, Sgt. Nice declared that they wanted to take him to jail rather than the hospital because "we have criminal charges on him." Chasse was taken to jail where they put a nylon "spit sock" over his head and locked him in a cell. When a nurse saw through the cell window that Chasse was unconscious, Burton and Humphreys put him back in their patrol car to bring him to Adventist Hospital some 6 miles away.
The next part of the story sounds like a strange television drama. Police noticed Chasse slump over in the back of the car and pulled off the freeway where a civilian--who just happened to be a defibrillator salesman--wandered by. According to the salesman, he grabbed a defibrillator, whose readout informed them that applying electric shocks would not help Chasse's condition. He said he saw the officers attempting CPR, which, according to both this witness and the medical examiner, could account for why some of Chasse's ribs were broken.
But this analysis can hardly explain why sixteen of Chasse's ribs were broken in twenty-six places, including some fragments which had splintered off and punctured his lung. Common sense says that those injuries were caused by violent actions of the police.
Chasse died at a nearby hospital (this one only 3 miles from the Precinct) minutes later. The Medical Examiner (ME), following the office's pattern of exonerating police of any wrongdoing (see PPR #38, for example) declared the death to be an "accident," explaining that the officers involved did not intend to kill Chasse. While this determination may eventually be decided in a court of law, at the least they should have known that their actions could have killed Chasse: striking him in the head and using a Taser on him constituted the use of deadly force. Thus, the officers could have been charged with negligent homicide. However, officers in Portland have never (to our knowledge) been charged for crimes involving on-duty use of force.
Portland Copwatch sent a letter to District Attorney (DA) Michael Schrunk to this effect prior to his empaneling a grand jury. Schrunk responded with a form letter noting that the family's attorney, Tom Steenson, was being kept in the loop as to all the witnesses being called. In fact, Steenson even hired an expert witness, a former Medical Examiner, to testify. Perhaps this was allowed as a way to make up for the DA inviting a paid expert from the City to speak at the James Jahar Perez grand jury (PPR #38).
To no one's surprise but to many a disappointment, a grand jury decided on October 17 that there was no criminal wrongdoing in Chasse's death, probably based in large part on the ME's "accident" ruling, which soon became the buzzword of the City. Chief Sizer spoke about the need not to try the case in the court of public opinion, but in the same breath she labelled the officers' actions "unintentional" (more on Sizer's response, see article ).
In the past, media and police reports have acted to "blame the victim," denigrating those who died in police custody due to their drug use past or present, criminal history, or parroting the police line that had the person not done x or y they would not be dead.
Jim Chasse was a man who suffered from schizophrenia. He was not on drugs, had not been drinking, and was known as a gentle, peaceful soul. In support of his family, Portland Copwatch teamed up with other community organizations including the Mental Health Association of Portland to hold a memorial vigil at the First Congregational Church on October 27th. Hundreds attended in what may have been a more powerful message of peace and love than any street demonstration we have previously participated in.
Within days, Mayor Tom Potter pledged to set aside money to fully train all 700 Portland patrol officers in Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training. Before September, about 150 officers had voluntarily taken the full 40-hour training. (As part of the settlement over the death of José Mejía Poot in 2001 all officers now get just 2 hours of CIT trainingPPR #32.) For the 11 years Portland has had the program, City Hall has said they agreed with Portland Copwatch and only wished they could afford to train all officers in the de-escalation tactics aimed at recognizing people in mental health or other crises and resolving the situations without force. Suddenly, and perhaps in part thanks to a Portland Mercury article on October 26 which estimated the money needed at $500,000, one item on the community checklist may soon be realized. We'd like to see all 1000 Portland Police trained and not just the 700 on patrol, but it's a good start.
Potter also announced the formation of a Mental Health Work Group to improve how the City and County police respond to people suffering from mental illness. The group is being co-chaired by Sen. Avel Gordly, whose son was shot at but unharmed by Portland Police during a mental health crisis in 2001 (PPR #25).
For all of Potter's sensitivities, readers should also be aware that he defended the general concept of police action downtown: "The fact is, we are trying to clean up the streets" (Portland Tribune, October 9). Does that mean that Jim Chasse was "garbage?"
The Work Group is another important step forward, but unfortunately does not address the core problem: The officers in this case were not trained in CIT, didn't know Chasse had a mental illness, assumed he was on drugs, and used an incredible amount of force to subdue him.
The two Portland officers involved are not strangers to violence. Humphreys, it was revealed by several newspapers, was the number two highest rated cop for filling out Use of Force forms (Portland Tribune, October 31). Humprhreys was also the subject of a lawsuit by Chaz Miller, 18, whom he beat some 30 times with his batoneven though Miller was not the suspect Humphreys was after. In early 2006, the city paid Miller over $30,000 to settle the case (Oregonian, October 27). In 1997, as an officer, Nice shot and wounded Ronald Barton, who lost the use of his left hand (PPRs #13&20).
The internal investigation continues. It will be turned over to a Use of Force Review Board that includes two citizens--whose identities are unknown--to determine whether the officers violated Bureau policy. After that, it is unclear whether the two or three civilian witnesses who filed complaints with the Independent Police Review Division (IPR) will be allowed to file an appeal if they disagree with the outcome. They filed the complaints of excessive force regardless of the fact that Chasse later died. IPR Director Leslie Stevens said in an email that because the incident involved a death, she believed there would be no appeal. This is not explicit in the IPR ordinance and needs to be tested.
No Drugs, Just Bread Crumbs
One of the witnesses to the beating of James Chasse said she was told by an officer that Chasse had drugs and had been arrested numerous times for drug crimes. But Chasse had no criminal record and there were no drugs. The officers involved said that they investigated something Chasse had dropped at the site where they saw him. Officer Humphreys describes going back and finding a "white powdery streak...what looked at me at first to be crack cocaine, So I went ahead and yelled to Sergant Nice, it could be cocaine." Deputy Burton describes the substance in his statement to detectives: "[It] looked like bread crust. He might have had a separate bag like a Safeway bag with food in it. Like some bread and stuff and looked like it was a piece of crust off of that."
For more information on this case check out the Mental Health Association of Portland's website at http://www.mentalhealthportland.org.
Portland Copwatch is a grassroots, volunteer organization promoting police accountability through citizen action.