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What Happened to James Chasse: Government officials, Chasse family members weigh in on in-custody death

Monday, September 25, 2006

Government officials, Chasse family members weigh in on in-custody death

from the Portland Tribune

Two separate press conferences were held Monday afternoon on the controversial death of James Chasse Jr., the 42-year-old man who died after being arrested by Portland police Sunday afternoon.

(PICTURE - Tom Steenson, attorney for the family of James Chasse Jr., conducts a press conference in downtown Portland at the World Trade Center flanked by Chasse's brother Mark Chasse, left, and father James Chasse Sr.)

The state medical examiner has determined that Chasse died of “broad-based blunt force trauma to his chest” and ruled the death “accidental.”

The first press conference was held at 2 p.m. by the Chasse family and their lawyer to say the amount of force used by the police was not justified.

“I wanted to say something to the leaders of this city,” said Mark Chasse, the dead man’s younger brother. “This event has made my family and many others truly question how great of a city this really is. You cannot treat any person in Portland like yesterday’s trash and expect to be considered a model for anything.”

In response, Police Chief Rosie Sizer held a 4 p.m. press conference to read a statement saying, in part, that the Portland Police Bureau plans to release information soon on its investigation into Chasse's death.

"This will include a timeline and statements by the officers, witnesses and others," Sizer said. "I think it is important the community knows that the officers involved are devastated by Mr. Chasse's death."

In her statement, Sizer also decried recent budget cuts to Portland-area mental health providers.

"Our mental health care system is inadequate. When the Multnomah County Jail system is the largest provider of treatment to the mentally ill in the state of Oregon, you know the system will break down," Sizer said.

State Sen. Avel Gordly, I-Portland, said she shares the concerns over Chasse’s death, and said she has encouraged Mayor Tom Potter to join her in calling for an inquest that is open to the public. “That process is transparent, which is why doing it is so important,” she said.

Potter released a statement Monday afternoon saying,"There are several legal inquiries already underway to determine precisely what occurred during the arrest, including the possibility of a grand jury, and they each need to move forward as quickly as possible. Any request to conduct a public inquest into this death is a legal determination that only the District Attorney's Office can make, and we will respect whatever he decides and cooperate fully."

Potter's statement also mentioned concerns about the state of Portland's mental health services.

Sizer said she expects James Chasse's mental health records would be subpoenaed as part of any grand jury investigation into his death.

The incident began at 5:20 p.m. on Sept. 17, when officers contacted Chasse near the corner of Northwest 13th Avenue and Everett Street, where — they said — he appeared to be publicly urinating.

According to police, Chasse ran from them and then resisted arrest, leading to an altercation and multiple uses of a Taser. Police say the Taser had no effect, and that Chasse bit one officer and tried to bite another.

Three eyewitnesses have filed complaints with the Independent Police Review office, saying that police officers, in addition to Tasering him, punched and kicked Chasse until he appeared to be unconscious.

Responding to a call from police, paramedics arrived and approved his transport to jail, but upon his arrival there a Multnomah County corrections nurse said he needed medical attention. Chasse died on the way to Portland Adventist Hospital.

“James was a bright and sweet boy who showed extraordinarily talents at a young age,” said his father, James Chasse Sr. “Since his late teenage years James suffered from an unfortunate mental illness.” Living in a halfway house in the vicinity of the Pearl, “he enjoyed reading comic books, listening to music and walking around his own Portland neighborhood. James' family will greatly miss him and his loving humor and kindness. We give thanks to our many friends and members of this and other families that have given us loving condolensces over the last few days.”

The family’s lawyer, Tom Steenson, said the family seeks justice, including some measurable evidence of change at the Portland Police Bureau.

“I think this family shares a deep concern that the City of Portland Police Bureau stop injuring and in some cases killing people that don’t deserve to have that degree of force used against them. Whether it takes training, whether it takes disclipine of the police officers, whether it takes a difference of leadership, I know the family is concerned about that. And part of what they are seeking as justice is a measure of change: that’s what needs to be happening in order to stop this from happening in the future.”

He also asked witnesses to contact his firm, which is conducting its own investigation. “This city and police bureaus across the country are famous for protecting their own,” he said. “It’s a sorry thing, but that’s what happens. We don’t have confidence in what they are going to do.”

Steenson maintained that James Chasse Jr.’s schizophrenia did not justify his treatment at the hands of police. “At this point I can’t imagine what difference it made ... he was walking in his neighborhood was what he was doing.”

Steenson also speculated that the use of a taser during the altercation may, in addition to his agitated state and being handcuffed with his hands behind his back, may have contributed to his difficulty breathing and death.

“Currently we can find no reason whatsoever for Jim not being taken immediately to a hospital which no doubt would have saved his life,” the lawyer said. “Instead, he was taken to jail.”

James Chasse Sr. said his son’s mental illness should have been easy to deduce. “If anybody saw (his son) on the street and started to talk to him they would pretty much know that he was severely mentally ill ...He was not in a hospital because of the conditions of the state.”

Oregon State Medical Examiner Karen Gunson released her findings in the case late Friday, finding that his death was “accidental.”

Under Oregon law, the manner of death selected by the M.E.’s office may include “natural, accidental, suicidal, homicidal, legal intervention or undetermined.” The law defines “legal intervention” as the “legal use of force” by law enforcement officers, “resulting in death.”

Steenson said the family questions how the death could be considered “accidental.” Gunson, however, told the Tribune that the death clearly was not intentional. The finding, she added, “is for the death certificate, and it’s a medical issue only — it has nothing to do with what happens in court. For instance, when someone is dead from a drunk driver, we’ll call that an accident, and that person gets manslaughter.”

According to a news release issued by the Portland Police Bureau, testing found no evidence of drugs in the dead man’s blood.

Currently, the matter is the subject of a criminal investigation, which will go to a secret grand jury by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office.

A news release issued by the Portland Police Association last week said: “We are confident in our officers and believe they will be vindicated through the review process.”

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