James Chasse’s broken back ribs likely from a kick or knee-drop, medical examiner says

From The Oregonian, July 3 2009

The medical examiner who performed the autopsy on James P. Chasse Jr. after he died in police custody says Chasse suffered 46 separate abrasions or contusions on his body, including six to the head and 19 strikes to the torso.

Fractures to Chasse’s rear ribs also likely did not result from Chasse getting knocked to the ground or someone falling on top of him, but more likely resulted from a kick or knee-drop, state medical examiner Dr. Karen Gunson said.

If he had received proper medical attention at the scene or been taken to a hospital right away, Gunson concluded, Chasse likely would still be alive.

Gunson’s statements, made during sworn depositions taken by Chasse’s family attorney Tom Steenson, are among dozens of pages of depositions filed this week in U.S. District Court in Portland as part of a federal lawsuit. The depositions from the medical examiner, the police, paramedics, witnesses and an expert witness provide insight into what will be argued if the case goes to trial on March 16.

Although Multnomah County has settled its part of the lawsuit, Chasse’s family continues to accuse Portland police of using excessive force and discriminating against Chasse because of his mental illness. They also intend to prove police and the American Medical Response Inc. paramedics failed to provide Chasse with adequate medical care.

The city has argued in court papers that officers didn’t discriminate against Chasse because they didn’t know he was mentally ill, but suspected he was urinating in public or using drugs on a city street. Steenson argues there’s no evidence that Chasse had urinated on the ground but may have wet his pants and that he wasn’t causing any public disorder.

Chasse, 42, who suffered from schizophrenia, died in police custody on Sept. 17, 2006. Two Portland officers, Officer Christopher Humphreys and Sgt. Kyle Nice, and then-Multnomah County sheriff’s deputy Bret Burton struggled to arrest Chasse after one of the officers said he appeared to be urinating on a city street. Police said he ran when they approached. They chased him, knocked him to the ground and struggled to handcuff him.

The city argues that officers provided “objectively reasonable care” by calling for medical help when it appeared Chasse stopped breathing during their “brief struggle” with him in the Pearl District.

In their first detailed statements made public since the investigation began, the AMR paramedics said in depositions that police did not explain to them the extent of their struggle with Chasse.

Paramedic Tamara Hergert said the ambulance was dispatched on a report that Chasse stopped breathing. When she arrived, though, Hergert said Nice told her that the man had run from police, and when caught, struggled with them until he suddenly stopped fighting and “went quiet.” She said Nice mentioned nothing about Chasse having stopped breathing.

Paramedics checked Chasse’s vital signs and found them to be normal. Hergert said she overheard someone say something about “drugs,” although police found no evidence of any drugs on Chasse or near him.

Hergert said she was told by Nice to give Humphreys a medical release form to sign on Chasse’s behalf, a form that no other Portland officer has signed or been asked to sign, according to Steenson’s court papers.

Multiple witnesses, including local real estate developer Homer Williams, said they were stunned that the ambulance left the scene, and police carried Chasse to a patrol car.

Williams said Chasse looked like a “bag of bones” as police picked him up by his feet and head, and “dumped” him in the back of a patrol car. He was handcuffed with his feet tied to his wrists. Williams said he was surprised the ambulance didn’t take Chasse away since he couldn’t stand up. Other witnesses heard Chasse yelling “mercy, mercy, mercy” and screaming in a loud, guttural “animalistic” tone. One witness said it looked like police “were carrying a dead deer.”

At the Multnomah County Detention Center, Chasse appeared to suffer a seizure and stopped breathing in the holding cell. A jail nurse locked through the cell door, saw Chasse moving and breathing, but told police the jail would not book Chasse. Police then drove him in a patrol car to a hospital, where he died on the way.

The autopsy found that he died from broad-based blunt-force trauma to the chest. He suffered 26 breaks to 16 ribs, some of which punctured his left lung. A Multnomah County jury found no criminal wrongdoing.

The city has argued that Chasse ran from police, refused to comply with orders to stop and violently resisted. Each time he was in medical distress, officers summoned necessary medical help at the scene, at the jail, and on their way to the hospital, the city says.

Lou Reiter, a retired Los Angeles police deputy chief and expert witness hired by Chasse’s family, said in a statement filed in court that the officers used excessive force through “impact strikes,” kicking and using their knees once Chasse was on the ground.

Soon after Chasse was checked by the paramedics, Terry O’Keefe, a Gresham sergeant who was not at the scene but was supervising Humphreys and Burton that night as part of the transit police, sent a message to them on their mobile computers:

“Nice work boys. Glad U R OK N HE ISN’T.”

EXTRA – Earlier Oregonian stories about James Chasse
EXTRA – Read The Chasse Files at the Mental Health Association of Portland