Three Years Gone – James Chasse’s death still haunts the city and Chief Rosie Sizer.

From Willamette Week, September 16 2009

In the three years since James Chasse Jr. died in police custody, statistics both revealing and disturbing have cropped up in public records surrounding his death.

    * 26 : The number of rib fractures Chasse suffered in his encounter with police.

    * 106 : The number of minutes between the moment police arrived and his death in the back of a patrol car.

Add one more number to the list: 110,000. That’s how many taxpayer dollars the City of Portland has spent so far defending itself in court against a lawsuit filed in 2007 by the Chasse family seeking unspecified damages.

James Chasse in 2004 and in 2007

James Chasse in 2004 and in 2007

On the off chance you don’t know the basics of what happened Sept. 17, 2006 (see “Why Did James Chasse Jr. Die?” WW, Nov. 1, 2006), the facts are these:

Law enforcement officers from Portland and Multnomah County saw Chasse, 42 years old and suffering from schizophrenia, possibly peeing on a Pearl District sidewalk. He ran. Police took him to the ground and struggled to handcuff him. Jailors refused to book him, insisting that instead he needed medical care. He died, hogtied in the back of a police car, en route to the hospital.

County officials in July agreed to settle their portion of the Chasse lawsuit for $925,000. Yet the city continues to spend about $3,700 a month fighting a suit scheduled for trial March 12. It’s a fight few observers believe the city has any hope of winning without paying some amount in damages.

And the city’s payout will probably far exceed the county’s, given that two of the three cops involved—Officer Chris Humphreys, who first took Chasse to the ground, and Sgt. Kyle Nice—were Portland police. (The third, Bret Burton, was a Multnomah County sheriff’s deputy since hired in 2007 as a Portland cop.)

The first $1 million of any jury award or out-of-court settlement the city pays will come from taxpayer dollars, with the rest picked up by insurance. That means the city’s insurance company, Chartis (formerly AIG), is doubtless helping call the shots. But even after a key court ruling this summer kept the case alive, there’s no indication the city intends to settle.

“They look at these things in a cold-blooded, rational way,” says Greg Kafoury, a Portland lawyer who’s not representing the Chasse family but has sued the city multiple times. “But when you have something as emotional as this case, there is always the possibility of other factors coming into play, because it’s a political hand grenade.”

And from City Hall, there’s been nothing but silence. Mayor Sam Adams, Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman, and City Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish all refused to comment for this story. Commissioner Randy Leonard, normally outspoken, didn’t even respond to our request.

Despite elected officials’ silence on the suit, the Chasse case has already led to systemic changes—new training for police, changes in jail policy and funding for a sub-acute crisis center for the mentally ill expected to open by 2012.

But it’s what hasn’t been done that continues to drive wedges between cops, the community and City Hall. Namely, a decision to discipline or clear the officers involved. And that comes down to one person: Police Chief Rosie Sizer.

A grand jury in 2006 cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing, but the internal police investigation that began immediately after Chasse’s death remains unresolved. The results of that probe advanced to the Police Bureau’s Use of Force Review Board, which reportedly found no violations of bureau policy.

But Sizer has yet to make a final determination whether to discipline the officers.

Chuck Thompson, head of the Maryland-based International Municipal Lawyers Association, says it’s common practice for cities to delay internal investigations until after lawsuits are resolved. That’s because findings of fault would be used against the city at trial.

“It’s definitely a quandary for a public official, especially when you have the public hammering at you to take action,” Thompson says.

Mental-health advocates and the city police union have taken different sides on what happened to Chasse but do agree on one thing—both have made repeated calls for Sizer to release her findings.

“There is this perception that James Chasse was beaten to death,” says Sgt. Scott Westerman, head of the police union. “I’ve got an officer (Humphreys, who witnesses say landed on Chasse) that is still hanging in the balance three years after the fact.”

Thompson says by delaying, Sizer could be reserving the option of punishing the officers based on any new information that arises from the civil case. That could be why the union is pushing Sizer to decide now, he says.

But one former police chief agrees with the union’s stand.

“Any school that you take on discipline says that it should be swift and sure,” says Penny Harrington, a former Portland chief who now works as a law-enforcement consultant. “There’s no reason for them not to act faster than that, other than they’re being told by someone above them not to do it.”

City Attorney Linda Meng denied she or anyone else in City Hall has pressed Sizer to delay, and Sizer said by email the investigation will be finished before the Chasse case goes to trial in March.

“The entire process,” Sizer wrote, “has taken longer than I had hoped.”