Chasse lawsuit calls for deadly force policy changes

from The Oregonian

A civil rights lawsuit filed Thursday by the family of a schizophrenic man who died in Portland police custody last fall seeks more than money: It demands wide-ranging policy changes designed to reduce excessive force by officers.

James P. Chasse, Jr., who suffered from schizophrenia, died from broad-based blunt force trauma to his chest after police struggled to take him into custody in the Pearl District on Sept. 17. His family wants the city to adopt a series of recommendations made since 2003 by a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that studied Portland’s use of deadly force.

Their lawsuit seeks an amount of damages to be determined by a jury. But it also proposes to:

* Change the police bureau’s foot-pursuit policy, saying officers have too much discretion in using violent punches and kicks despite the power of such blows to cause grave injury and death. The policy should be brought in line with the use of deadly force, prohibiting officers from taking people to the ground unless the person poses an immediate risk of death to the public.

* Change the police bureau’s use of deadly force policy, which the Chasse family’s attorney claims violates the U.S. Constitution.

* Create an independent citizen review commission to investigate deaths caused by police and in-custody deaths.

* Change police anti-discrimination policies to better protect people with mental illnesses and disabilities by requiring officers to treat them fairly.

* Create an early-warning system to identify police officers with high use-of-force rates and take appropriate action against them.

Sgt. Brian Schmautz, a spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau, said he would not comment on pending litigation.

Police officers told investigators that they thought Chasse, 42, was possibly on drugs after they saw him shuffling on a street corner and then possibly urinating behind a tree. Once they approached him, the officers said, Chasse ran. Two Portland officers and a Multnomah County deputy sheriff chased after him and knocked him to the ground. During a struggle to handcuff him, Chasse suffered multiple rib fractures, some of which punctured his left lung.

Chasse’s family did not speak during a Thursday afternoon press conference.

The family’s attorney, Tom Steenson, said the family will ask the federal judge overseeing their case to order the proposed changes if the bureau does not make them.

The lawsuit alleges that the officers used excessive force against Chasse and lied to the public about him, saying he was homeless and on drugs, in an effort to cover up their misdeeds, and officers failed to address the injuries that killed him.

Steenson also blasted the state Medical Examiner’s office for missing several injuries to Chasse that a second autopsy found. And he criticized Multnomah County’s grand jury review system, which has never resulted in the indictment of a police officer for using excessive force.