Family of James Chasse files suit

From the Willamette Week, February 7, 2007

The family of James P. Chasse Jr., a 42-year-old schizophrenic man killed in police custody last year, filed suit in federal court today as their attorney called for overhauling a “system that allows brutality.”

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages against the three Portland police officers who scuffled with Chasse, as well as the City of Portland, Multnomah County, TriMet, the American Medical Response ambulance service, and unnamed city and county officials, deputies and paramedics.

Chasse died Sept. 17 in the back seat of a police cruiser after his chest was crushed during a struggle with Portland Police officers Christopher Humphreys and Kyle Nice and Multnomah County Sheriff’s Deputy Brett Burton. Police say Chasse’s chest injuries probably occurred when Humphreys, who was chasing Chasse, fell on top of him or tackled him.

But the lawsuit alleges police assaulted Chasse without cause as he walked through the Northwest Portland neighborhood where he lived, “viciously” beating and tasering him. It also claims police and emergency workers ignored Chasse’s medical needs and that the officers engaged in a cover-up.

The family’s Portland attorney, Tom Steenson, said at an afternoon news conference that medical experts agree Chasse could have survived if he had received medical treatment instead of being taken to jail.

He said the case calls into question several issues that aren’t named in the lawsuit. For instance, an autopsy performed at the family’s request revealed broken bones and injuries that weren’t named in the medical examiner’s report, he said.

Steeson blamed outdated police policies in part for Chasse’s death. The lawsuit calls for an overhaul of police rules of engagement and the bureau’s policy toward the mentally ill, as well as an independent panel to investigate police deaths and intervention against officers with high use-of-force rates.

“The No. 1 thing on the minds of this family is to get the city and Police Bureau to make these changes,” Steenson said at the news conference, flanked by Chasse’s father and pictures of the victim seated at home and playing with two dogs.

Steenson declined to say how much money the family hopes to gain in a settlement, or whether they would drop the suit if police policy changes.