Partial Settlement, New Allegations in Chasse Lawsuit

From the Portland Mercury, July 8 2009

Terminal Energy – Partial Settlement, New Allegations in Chasse Lawsuit

“There is a lot of positive energy that has developed out of this tragedy,” said Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler last Thursday morning, July 2, discussing the county’s record $925,000 settlement for its role in the death of James Chasse Jr.

Wheeler coupled the county’s settlement with a more positive announcement about finally building a sub-acute facility for those who are in mental health crisis like Chasse, who died in custody after an encounter with two Portland police officers and a county sheriff’s deputy in the Pearl District on September 17, 2006. Chasse—who was pursued and tackled by police after allegedly being witnessed urinating in the street—was 42, and had suffered with schizophrenia since his teens.

“I think this is in the best interest of the community and the Chasse family, and it allows us to get beyond the legal issues in the case and move toward a better system of delivery for people in mental health crisis,” said Wheeler.

The new center is expected to open on East Burnside and MLK, on the second floor of Central City Concern’s (CCC) existing Hooper detoxification center, in late 2011. In the spring, the county gave CCC $1 million to move the detoxification center to a new CCC building at the old Ramada Inn in the Rose Quarter by May 2010—thereby making space for an overhaul of the Hooper building and the new sub-acute facility.

The Portland Development Commission (PDC) has approved $75,000 in pre-development for the project, setting aside $2 million in its 2012-13 budget to cover the cost of the sub-acute center, said PDC government affairs specialist Keith Witcosky at last Thursday’s county meeting. Witcosky said PDC will “be as creative as we need” to cover the time lag between now and 2012, and hopefully move the money into this fiscal year so that work can begin on the center as soon as possible.

The county currently faces an $800,000 per-year budget hole in opening the sub-acute center, said county mental health director Joanne Fuller, but it hopes to plug the gap by working with the city, state, and CCC. “There is also the potential for stimulus dollars,” said Fuller.

“I don’t think a celebration is in order today,” said Wheeler. “There’s an opportunity here.”

Wheeler said the new center, which is expected to house those in mental health crisis for up to 10 days while they stabilize, before moving them into housing through CCC, “is going to be effective, and cost-effective, and I don’t want to overlook the fact that it’s humane.”

“What was very encouraging in hearing Ted speak was that he was taking what happened to James seriously and straightforwardly,” said Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland.

Meanwhile, the Chasse family’s attorneys filed documents on Wednesday, July 1 in their ongoing case against the City of Portland that contained troubling new allegations based on testimony about Chasse’s death in police custody. They are as follows:

1. Chasse’s broken ribs were most likely the result of kicks or a dropped knee. State medical examiner Karen Gunson, who performed Chasse’s autopsy, told attorneys for the Chasse family during depositions that some fractured ribs in Chasse’s back were unlikely to have been caused by his fall to the ground, but that a “knee in that particular area on the back of the neck” was a “better scenario.” Gunson found 48 separate abrasions or contusions on Chasse’s body, including 16 possible blows to the head. Chasse would most likely have lived if he had been given proper medical care, Gunson said.

2. Chasse never urinated in the street.
Deposition of Portland Police Bureau Officer Christopher Humphreys reveals he never saw Chasse urinate on the sidewalk—an alleged detail of their encounter, which has been widely reported as a possible legal basis for the officers stopping Chasse. At most, Humphreys thought he saw Chasse urinating in his own pants because there was possibly a wet patch on his trousers, he said. But Chasse was causing no distress or alarm, Humphreys admitted.

3. Chasse screamed before going unconscious. Several witnesses described Chasse’s screams during his struggle with police. “He seemed like a scared animal,” said witness Melissa Jane Gaylord. Electrician Tony Lee Carter “thought [Chasse] was dead” for a period during which Chasse was unconscious on the sidewalk, following his beating. Bike lawyer Mark Ginsberg, another witness, said: “I did hear Mr. Chasse yelling ‘mercy, mercy, mercy,’ and that was personally pretty disturbing to me.”

4. Paramedics did not adequately assess Chasse’s injuries. Sergeant Kyle Nice radioed for backup saying Chasse was “unconscious” on the street corner of NW 13th and Everett, but never informed paramedics of the extent of force used or of Chasse’s prolonged unconsciousness, according to the documents. Paramedic Tamara Hergert wrote only that Chasse had become “extremely quiet” on the sidewalk. “Police thought he may have passed out, he came to quickly,” she wrote. Hergert also apparently neglected to do a body check on Chasse, beyond checking his vital signs, which she wrote down were normal. Hergert also told lawyers she was directed by Nice to have Humphreys sign a medical release form on Chasse’s behalf.

5. Witnesses were shocked Chasse wasn’t taken to hospital in an ambulance. Local developer Homer Williams said Chasse looked like a “bag of bones” when police put him in a squad car.

6. There was mocking of Chasse’s distress. “There was clear vocal mocking, the mocking of Mr. Chasse’s cries for help,” said eyewitness Randall Stuart, referring to emergency workers on the scene. Later TriMet sergeant Terry O’Keefe, who was supervising Humphreys and Sheriff’s Deputy Bret Burton that night, sent them a message on their in-car computers: “NICE WORK BOYS. GLAD U R OK N HE ISN’T.”

7. Police experts say cops were in the wrong. An expert witness says Officers Nice, Humphreys, and Sheriff’s Deputy Burton did not follow police policies and practices in the treatment of someone who is at least suspected of being mentally ill. 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.”

“We should have known all this within hours of Chasse’s death, not three years later,” says Renaud of the Mental Health Association. “The public is stuck in the middle without the facts, waiting patiently for legal documents to emerge so that we can discern the truth.”

It is against the city attorney’s policy to comment on ongoing lawsuits.