Follow the bread crumbs in Chasse’s death

Unsigned opinion editorial from The Oregonian, October 22, 2010

You may think the death of James P. Chasse Jr. has been exhaustively examined. Sadly, it seems, that’s not entirely the case.

The mentally ill musician’s Sept. 17, 2006, death in police custody did not receive the flood-lamp treatment it deserved immediately. Hence, a swarm of question marks still surrounds it. And some new — and disturbing ones — emerged this week.

Had a public inquest been held promptly, much of this might have already been sorted out. But that didn’t happen. Indeed, to the contrary, a judge’s protective order in a civil suit kept evidence in the case cloaked in secrecy, allowing questions to do what they always do in the dark:

At a news conference this week, lawyers for the Chasse family presented a different theory about what happened, outlining what they might have argued had the case gone to trial. (Five months ago, it was settled out of court, but the Chasse family pushed for an unusual postscript: release of evidence in the case.)

Three officers, remember, pursued Chasse for no good reason in the Pearl District. He was badly injured in their violent take-down, but might have survived if he’d been taken to a hospital. But he wasn’t, until far too late.

Finally, he died en route. The lawyers alleged that the officers withheld crucial information, made false statements to witnesses about Chasse and even bagged bread crumbs from Chasse’s backpack to make it look like he had a drug problem — all so the officers allegedly would distract attention from their own conduct.

“The cover-up did kill James Chasse because it kept him from getting to the hospital,” attorney Thomas Schneiger argued. “If they would have just gone to the hospital, they (the officers) would have been in trouble; he would have lived.”

Out of fairness to the officers involved, it’s extremely important to approach these allegations with yellow lights flashing. That paramedics were called to the scene, after all, would not appear to fit the theory. Police Chief Mike Reese said Thursday that he’d seen nothing in police documents that “indicates conspiracy.”

“This has been thoroughly analyzed,” he said, “but I’m willing to have it analyzed again.” Reese and Mayor Sam Adams said this week that they would ask the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to evaluate “these new concerns” as part of a broader inquiry, sought earlier this year, into other police-involved deaths.

Of course, an allegation that police fabricated evidence would also draw the eye of district attorney Michael Schrunk. “They (the attorneys) have a theory,” he said Thursday, “and if it’s supported by the facts, we’ll look at it.”

We called it “new,” by the way, but “new” has to be used provisionally in this four-year-old case. It’s difficult to know how new anything really is about it. Police officers, trained to put evidence together in new ways, flip it around and test out different theories, surely had some glimmering about this before now.

A public inquest immediately after Sept. 17, 2006, could have made a world of difference, by smoking out loose ends and setting some aside.

Immediate illumination would have been fairer to the officers, fairer to the Chasse family and fairer to the public. There is no other choice now, though, but to keep following the bread crumbs.