Not Policing Themselves

Not Policing Themselves – Lawsuits: The Only Real Discipline for Portland Cops?

From the Portland Mercury, September 30 2009

Police Chief Rosie Sizer finally released the findings of an internal review of the 2006 death in custody of James Chasse—a man suffering from schizophrenia—last week, finding barely any wrongdoing by her officers.

The Portland Police Bureau’s internal Use of Force Review Board found that Officer Christopher Humphreys and Sergeant Kyle Nice did not violate any bureau policies by chasing Chasse, tackling him to the ground, and beating him on the sidewalk, in front of witnesses, until he was unconscious.

Perhaps most controversial of all, the chief released a statement saying: “There is no evidence in any report or witness statement that caused members of the Use of Force Review Board to conclude that any officer at the scene knew or should have known that Mr. Chasse had suffered a serious physical injury.”

Court documents and witness transcripts obtained by the Mercury tell a different story. State Medical Examiner Karen Gunson found 48 separate abrasions on Chasse’s body, including 16 possible blows to the head. Several witnesses described Chasse’s screams during his struggle with police, before going unconscious.

“He seemed like a scared animal,” said witness Melissa Jane Gaylord. Electrician Tony Lee Carter “thought [Chasse] was dead” for the period during which Chasse was unconscious on the sidewalk. Bike lawyer Mark Ginsberg, another witness, said: “I did hear Mr. Chasse yelling, ‘mercy, mercy, mercy,’ and that was personally pretty disturbing to me.”

Witnesses were shocked Chasse wasn’t taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Local developer Homer Williams said Chasse looked like a “bag of bones” when police put him in a squad car. Meanwhile Lou Reiter, former deputy police chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, described the officers’ use of force as “unreasonable,” and their failure to disclose to paramedics the force used on Chasse as “unreasonable,” during depositions in a lawsuit being brought by the Chasse family against the police bureau, earlier this year.

The only person at fault in the whole affair was Sergeant Nice, according to the internal review board, for failing to transport Chasse to the hospital after the deployment of a Taser by Sheriff’s Deputy Bret Burton during the struggle. Sizer and Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman will now co-sign a letter ordering Nice suspended for an as-yet-determined period of time. Nice will have the opportunity to appeal the suspension if he chooses.

Saltzman had no comment on the findings on Wednesday, September 23, but told the Mercury: “We certainly regret Mr. Chasse’s death.”

“Nice’s suspension could be 10 minutes long,” says Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland. “The question is whether there is some sort of punitive measure that will cause police officers to not do this in the future.

“When police officers do the right thing as per policy and per training, and yet someone ends up dead, there is something wrong,” Renaud continues. “That problem has not been solved yet, and it seems to be that the only way to solve that is by the penalty afforded from a civil trial.”

In other words, it would seem the only way to fairly punish Portland’s cops for excessive force is to take them to court.

Just ask Frank Waterhouse—the cops’ internal review recommended no discipline for the officers who Tasered and shot him with less-lethal ammunition without warning in October 2006. Waterhouse had been filming the officers as they searched for a jaywalker at a Northeast Portland garage where he was working as an apprentice.

Waterhouse, who was cleared of all charges relating to the incident, wasn’t satisfied with the Use of Force Review Board’s findings, and took the officers to court. Two weeks ago he won a settlement of $55,000 after a jury agreed that the officers’ use of force was indeed excessive. Waterhouse had only sought $30,000 in the suit, but the jury awarded him almost twice as much.

Perhaps most surprising of all in the case was the identity of Waterhouse’s star witness: Chief Sizer.

Sizer testified for Waterhouse, against her own Use of Force Review Board’s findings, and against the city, arguing that the officers had ample time to coordinate their efforts so Waterhouse wasn’t hit with two weapons at once, and that they had plenty of time to give warning. Sizer also told the jury Waterhouse was not actively resisting, a requirement for the use of a beanbag round, which is fired from a 12-guage shotgun.

“It blew my mind, really,” Waterhouse says. “I couldn’t believe that somebody from their side actually looked at my case and determined that they went overboard.”

Sizer declined comment on her decision to testify against the internal review board’s findings by press time, but it certainly sets an uncomfortable precedent for police officers working the street.

“These officers felt blindsided by the chief in court,” says Portland Police Association boss Scott Westerman, who adds that mitigating circumstances for the force used on Waterhouse were excluded from the court testimony—they thought Waterhouse was the jaywalker they were looking for, he says.

“The circumstances to which these officers were responding were minimized by the attorney,” he adds.

Waterhouse’s attorney, Benjamin Haile, says Westerman’s remarks are “insulting” to juries because they assume that the public can’t understand the work that police do.

“In my experience, people on juries are very willing to give police officers the benefit of the doubt, very willing to assume they’re doing the best they can,” Haile says. “A trial is a time to get the entire truth out in the open. The officers are not going to be held responsible for their actions unless all of those people agree that what they did was wrong.”

A federal trial related to Chasse’s death is due to begin in March 2010. The Chasse family’s attorney, Tom Steenson, issued a statement last week about the Use of Force Review Board’s findings, but declined further comment under the terms of a court protective order.