Multnomah County would be smart to settle Chasse suit

Anna Griffin

Anna Griffin

Opinion editorial from Anna Griffin of The Oregonian, June 26 2009

At long last, someone has made a smart decision in the case of poor James Chasse. Not surprisingly, it’s Ted Wheeler.

Chasse, a schizophrenic man, was behaving oddly and possibly urinating on a tree when police spotted him on Sept. 17, 2006.

Two Portland officers and a Multnomah County deputy approached Chasse figuring they were dealing with a drunk or a drug addict. He ran. As Pearl District diners and shoppers looked on, police chased Chasse and knocked him to the sidewalk. He screamed and fought to break free. Officers used physical force — their fists, feet and finally a Taser — to subdue him.

Paramedics at the scene said Chasse’s vital signs were normal, so officers tied his feet to his hands and took him to the Multnomah County Detention Center. A jail nurse evaluated Chasse’s condition through a cell window. She watched him twitch for a few seconds, told officers he needed medical care and walked away. He died in the back seat of a patrol car on the way to Portland Adventist, less than two hours after his encounter with police.

Chasse’s family filed a federal lawsuit against the city, the county, the ambulance company, the police chief, the mayor, the officers, paramedics and jail staff. The lawsuit, since split into separate cases against the officers involved and the government agencies, alleges that Chasse’s civil rights were violated, and that pretty much everyone who could screw up did.

Activists for the poor and mentally ill have accused police of beating Chasse to death, then covering up their use of excessive force. Police, in turn, say they’ve been vilified for a tragic accident.

We may never really know precisely what happened, which particular version of events is closest to the truth or which particular bad decision caused his death.

Which is why Wheeler’s decision this week to ask his Multnomah County Board of Commissioners to settle its part of the suit for close to $1 million feels both wise and compassionate.

I know, I know. Chasse may not have been an entirely innocent victim. Officers approached because he appeared to be urinating in public. He ran from them and resisted arrest with surprising force, scratching and biting. A grand jury found no reason to charge anyone involved in chasing Chasse down with a crime. The state medical examiner ruled his death accidental, the natural result of a 245-pound man crashing down on top of a 145-pound one.

Settling the lawsuit is a good business decision. A trial of this magnitude — involving expert witnesses, conflicting eyewitness testimony and outside lawyers — could cost taxpayers more than the $925,000 settlement even if the county were to win.

Settling is also the right thing to do because, on a broader level, we all share blame for Chasse’s death.

The city and county systems for handling mentally ill people have improved since Chasse’s death. The Portland Police Bureau now trains officers about how to deal with mentally ill people and tightened rules about when they can use force. County leaders changed booking procedures at the jail and are close to construction of a $3 million mental health assessment and treatment center. Still, the county’s mental health programs and the city’s affordable housing efforts both remain woefully understaffed, underfunded and underappreciated.

Wheeler’s decision to settle is a nod to the vast amount of work left to be done. And, even if he doesn’t intend it that way, next week’s county vote on the deal is a reminder to everyone else in this lawsuit that the money being devoted to legal wrangling would be better used fixing a system still undeniably broken.