DA reviews Chasse probe for possible criminal charges

James Chasse

James Chasse

From the Portland Tribune, November 13 2008

Officials consider whether Portland cop should be prosecuted for lying to investigators

The Multnomah County District Attorney’s office said Thursday that it will review the police investigation surrounding the 2006 death of James Chasse Jr. to determine whether Portland Police Officer Christopher Humphreys lied to police detectives during that probe.

On Sept. 17, 2006, Humphreys, Sgt. Kyle Nice and Sheriff’s Deputy Bret Burton, then patrolling Portland’s Pearl District, gave chase to Chasse, whom they suspected of urinating in public.

Outside the Bluehour restaurant, the officers subdued Chasse – who resisted furiously, according to eye witnesses – and took him to jail. Nurses there refused to accept him due to the extent of injuries he sustained during the encounter with police. The officers then took him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:04 p.m.

The 42-year-old, 145-pound man suffered at least 26 broken bones in his rib cage and a punctured left lung, according to a medical examiner’s autopsy. The autopsy concluded he died of “blunt force trauma.”

The fact that officers’ accounts of the altercation do not explain the extent of Chasse’s injuries has led to continued questions about his death.

One possible answer was provided last month by a new, enhanced jail booking-area video first made public by the Portland Tribune. It shows that on the night of the incident, shortly before Chasse’s death, Humphreys told corrections deputies that “we tackled” Chasse and he “fell hard.”

As Humphreys spoke, sheriff’s Deputy Bret Burton, while standing next to him in the booking area, held his arms in a hug-like motion while leaning forward, apparently providing emphasis for Humphreys’ account. Then Burton appeared to simulate the impact of Chasse hitting the ground: “Doofh!” he said.

Reviewed from a ‘criminal perspective’

The two officers’ account recorded on video appears to significantly contradict what Humphreys told criminal detectives three days later – that Humphreys merely pushed Chasse to the ground and did not tackle him. The release of the video caused Police Chief Rosie Sizer to announce the case would be reviewed to determine whether another investigation is in order.

Enhanced by a consultant hired by a lawyer for Chasse’s family — which has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city of Portland — the video is significant because an officer who is found to have lied in an official investigation can be disciplined and even criminally charged. Moreover, the contrasting statements by Humphreys could become a factor in the Chasse family’s lawsuit.

Pushing a suspect to the ground is justifiable under the bureau’s training. However, officers, are no longer trained to tackle suspects due to the potential for injury.

Therefore, admitting to tackling Chasse would have exposed Humphreys to greater risk of discipline. Humphreys’ account to jail deputies, while seemingly at odds with what he later told detectives, is consistent with eyewitness accounts.

“A straight bearhug-type tackle” is how the officer’s sergeant, Nice, described Humphreys’ takedown of Chasse to detectives.

Today, Chief Deputy District Attorney Norm Frink confirmed that an investigation was under way and that it could lead to criminal charges if Humphreys is found to have lied to detectives.

“This will be reviewed from a criminal perspective” to settle the question, Frink said, and “there will be an answer one way or the other.”

Asked if that meant the investigation would be presented to a grand jury, he responded: “Not necessarily.”

Different accounts of incident

The discrepancy between Humphreys two accounts is relevant in part because Humphreys outweighed Chasse by 100 pounds. And prior to the release of the video, police bureau officials had privately expressed the opinion that Chasse’s injuries were caused by Humphreys landing on him.

Humphrey’s claim to detectives three days after the incident that he did not land on Chasse or make any contact with him during the fall was due to the fallibility of memory in the heat of the moment, these officials said.

If Humphreys did not cause the injuries by landing on Chasse, however, then only two other possible explanations have been raised by people who’ve tracked the case, such as by Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland.

First, that the injuries were caused by officers using force during the fracas with Chase — which is not consistent with eyewitness accounts. Or second, that officers stopped their patrol car on the way to jail and beat Chasse, which the bureau says did not happen.

The release of the video, therefore, supports the bureau’s account of the cause of Chasse’s injuries — but at the same time suggests that Humphreys may have shaded his later official statement.

The Police Bureau has disciplined officers in the past for failure to follow police training. Failure to follow training, among other things, was cited in Mayor Tom Potter’s decision to fire Lt. Jeff Kaer for killing Dennis Lamar Young in 2006. That decision was later overturned by an arbitrator, noting that Kaer feared for his life.

As the Portland Tribune reported last month, in 2000, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office referred an earlier arrest by Humphreys to federal prosecutors for potential criminal charges, after Humphreys was accused of lying. However, insufficient evidence existed to charge Humphreys, documents show.

New twist in federal case

In addition to Thursday’s announcement by Deputy DA Frink, there is another new development in the case.

A new filing by the city in the family’s federal wrongful-death lawsuit against the city suggests that the officers did not follow their training in subduing Chasse — and that an internal Portland Police Bureau report on the incident would be so “highly prejudicial” to a jury’s objectivity that attorneys for the city are trying to keep it from being presented as evidence to show the case merited discipline by Mayor Tom Potter and Chief Sizer.

Filed by Deputy City Attorney James G. Rice, the city’s Nov. 6 brief argues that the Chasse family’s claims against Potter and Sizer should be separated from its case against the arresting officers because the family’s lawyer, Tom Steenson, plans to introduce as evidence a training division report on the incident. That report would unfairly bias the jury against the city’s case, Rice argued.

The city has filed for a protective order to ensure that many internal documents on the case are not revealed to the public pending the lawsuit’s outcome.

For that reason, the training division report is being kept secret. However, Rice’s briefing suggests that the training division did not approve of officers’ handling of Chasse — much as the equivalent training-division report had questioned Kaer’s actions in his 2006 shooting.