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What Happened to James Chasse: Family wants justice for man who died in custody

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Family wants justice for man who died in custody

from The Oregonian, by Elizabeth Suh

Family members of James Philip Chasse Jr., who died in police custody a week ago, described him Monday as a gentle, mentally ill man and said they would seek justice in his loving spirit, without anger or outrage.

"He was probably the gentlest person I've ever known," said Mark Chasse, Chasse's younger brother, in the first of two news conferences Monday on the 42-year-old man's death.

Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer called the media together two hours later to say the officers involved were devastated and to promise a quick accounting of what took place that day. Mayor Tom Potter, in Germany visiting his wife's family, issued a statement calling for a speedy and transparent investigation.

Tom Steenson, an attorney for the Chasse family, said the family's independent investigation so far has found no justification for the level of force that police used in arresting Chasse on Sept. 17.

Steenson said police had no reason to assault Chasse, smash him to the pavement, kick him, hogtie him and then use a Taser. He said witnesses described the officers as chuckling when they stood around the fallen man.

Sizer said in her news conference that investigators had interviewed the officers involved, jail personnel and many witnesses. She said they would release a timeline and statements from officers and witnesses as soon as possible.

According to police, officers spotted Chasse around 5:25 p.m. near Northwest 13th Avenue and Everett Street acting odd, as if he were on drugs or had a mental disorder. It appeared to one officer that Chasse may have been urinating in the street.

When officers approached, Chasse ran, and the police gave chase. Police said an officer pushed him, causing him to stumble to the ground.

Witnesses said officers forcefully knocked Chasse to the pavement. They said officers then landed on top of him, kicked him repeatedly and placed a Taser gun to his torso.

After arresting him, officers called for paramedics because Chasse was having trouble breathing. Police said the paramedics cleared him to go to jail, so they took him to be booked on accusations of resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. At the jail, nurses determined that he needed medical care, and police were called back to take him to the hospital. Chasse died on the way there in a patrol car.

State medical examiner Dr. Karen Gunson said Friday that Chasse died of "broad-based" blunt force trauma to the chest and called the manner of death accidental.

Steenson said his investigation has found police did not tell paramedics everything, including that officers had shocked him four times with a Taser. Steenson said Taser use has often been associated with deaths.

Steenson said he disagreed with the medical examiner's findings that Chasse's death was accidental, calling police actions "deliberate and intentional." He said he could find no reason why police did not take Chasse to the hospital immediately, something he said would have saved Chasse's life.

Steenson said officers told witnesses that drugs were involved, but the medical examiner's toxicology report found no drugs in Chasse's system.

Chasse's father, James Philip Chasse Sr., said his son, the older of two children, was bright and sweet as a boy and began suffering from severe mental illness in his late teens.

He said his son, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic, was so severely mentally ill that anyone who spoke to him would have realized he was ill.

Chasse had been living in a halfway house and kept in touch with family members, although at times that contact could be erratic, his father said.

Steenson said officials, including the district attorney and medical examiner, so far have been unresponsive or reluctant to cooperate with the family's investigation.

In her news conference Monday, Chief Sizer focused on the county's mental health system, describing it as being in a state of breakdown unprecedented in her 21 years at the Police Bureau.

That's a theme the mayor also touched on in his statement: "This is not an issue just for Portland police, but rather one that calls for a solution that includes our correctional system, medical and mental health providers."

Sizer said she expects the Multnomah County district attorney to send the investigation to a grand jury.

The Portland Police Association on Monday issued a statement in support of the involved officers: "We are confident in our officers and believe they will be vindicated through the review process."

Mark Chasse said his brother's gentle nature made the way he died all the more tragic.

He said he and his brother were born and raised in Portland and loved the city.

The nature of his death "has made us truly question how great of a city this really is," Mark Chasse said.

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