Chasse case languishes alongside squandered progress

Published in Street Roots, September 4 2008
Op Ed by the Board of Directors of the Mental Health Association of Portland

As we approach the third anniversary of the death of James Chasse, there are several crucial questions still floating in legal and political limbo.

None are more vital than a long-overdue Portland Police Bureau’s internal investigative report on what happened to James Chasse.

We know some things, such as what happened to James: an innocent man, he was ambushed by three police officers who gave him a savage beating in front of dozens of witnesses, who then failed to inform the ambulance service of the beating, and who then, instead of taking him to a hospital, took the mortally wounded James on a meandering tour of town before eventually arriving at the downtown jail.

James died having suffered 16 broken ribs, a punctured lung, massive internal bleeding, 46 separate abrasions or contusions on his body, including six to the head and 19 strikes to the torso. Hogtied, in shrieking pain, he died a mere hour after his first contact with an officer.

From the first moments both officers and their political leaders opted to shift blame and hide behind their collective badges.  The cost has been seriously miscalculated resulting in citizens’ lost respect and trust for sworn officers, doubt in the competence and capability of the jail and mental health system, and wide-ranging cynicism and apathy.

Thoughtless persons ignore these factors which amount to a humanitarian, civil rights and legal travesty.

The overdue internal investigation sits neatly on the desk of police chief Rosie Sizer, who has no intent of finishing it, or releasing it prior to the final settlement of all current and potential civil law

The Chasse family, deprived of their son and brother, filed suit against Multnomah County, the City of Portland, Tri-Met and American Medical Response for costs and specific changes to City and County
policy. Announced in February of 2007, the suit’s first court date is now scheduled for March 2010.  Multnomah County settled its portion of the suit in July 2009 for $925,000.

Involved and shielded also by the suit is a vast protective order created by Federal Judge Dennis Hubel in 2007.  This order confines a wide array of texts which the defendants argued if they fell into the hands of the public, would endanger police officers, both in general and in particular. These texts include everything from personal cell phone bills to police training manuals.

If the suit goes to trial, items within the protective order can be called as evidence and put into the public record. Any settlement offer from the City is likely to require the protective order to be maintained. Thus, a great many essential  and informative facts will never be revealed to the public. If the city loses the trial, it’s likely they will appeal the verdict and call for the protective order to be maintained during the appeal process.

What are the internal pressures causing the city to defend the indefensible?

How can the police bureau be administrated if the chief’s hands can be tied up in court for years?

What’s the financial cost in the tarnished reputation of the bureau, in recruitment and retention?

What’s the spiritual cost of belligerence and disgust for officers who rather need trust and immediate regard more than cars or guns or the law to fight crime?

What’s the mortal cost of maintaining dread and fear of physical violence towards persons with mental illness from those who have sworn to protect and serve?

These questions dwell in the arena of impunity, a corrosive which thoughtful political administrators dissolve with dialogue, with quick action, with cool consideration.

Three years. The grief about what happened to James Chasse is gone, replaced with disappointment.