Thursday, September 28, 2006
Potter: Staff bungled Chasse call
from The Oregonian, by Anna Griffin
Portland Mayor Tom Potter says his staff made a mistake waiting five days to tell him about the death of a mentally ill man in police custody --a delay that left some activists questioning how seriously city leaders took James Chasse Jr.'s demise.
Chasse died Sept. 17, the same day Potter and his wife left for a nine-day trip to Germany. The mayor's staff opted not to interrupt his vacation until Sept. 22, after the state medical examiner ruled that Chasse died from "broad-based" blunt-force trauma to the chest after Portland officers arrested him.
"They should have told him as soon as it came out that somebody had died in police custody," said Dan Handelman, who leads Portland Copwatch. "It's not like these things happen every day."
On Wednesday, a day after his return flight, Potter agreed with that assessment, although he said he thinks the city's overall response has been appropriate.
Why didn't his staff call him sooner?
"You'll have to ask them that," he said. "They made a value judgment and elected not to tell me. I've made it absolutely clear that it was a bad call."
As his advisers have pointed out, there's little the mayor could have done about Chasse's death and the subsequent investigation from either Germany or City Hall. But the decision not to call him for almost a week also contradicted Potter's policy toward his vacations.
In 1992, police mistakenly shot and killed 12-year-old Nathan Thomas after a suicidal intruder broke into his Laurelhurst home and held a knife to his throat. Potter, then police chief, was on vacation in a remote part of Mexico and out of easy telephone reach, and officers at the Police Bureau opted not to notify him.
Potter found out in a phone call to his mother 11 days after the fact.
Potter faced numerous questions about his handling of the Thomas situation during the 2004 mayor's race.
"In the future --and obviously it's a different relationship as chief as opposed to mayor --I will be advised immediately wherever I'm at in the world," he said in an October 2004 interview. "Communication systems are much better now. I'll expect to be notified; then if it's a major disaster or a serious community incident, I would expect to return immediately."
He reiterated that standard when chief of staff Nancy Hamilton called him late Friday (Saturday morning in Germany).
"The mayor pays me to have good judgment," Hamilton said. "In this case, I failed him."
Potter was in Taiwan last winter at an international conference of port cities when his proposal for a citywide education income tax fell apart. He was on vacation in Israel last March when another man went into cardiac arrest and died after a Portland officer stunned him twice with a Taser. The medical examiner later found that the man died of a cocaine overdose.
In both cases, Potter's staff called him right away and stayed in frequent contact.
Aides got updates
Chasse's Sept. 17 run-in with police began about 5:25 p.m. near Northwest 18th Avenue and Everett Street when officers noticed him behaving strangely, according to police. It appeared to one officer that Chasse, 42, might have been urinating in the street.
When police approached, Chasse ran. Three officers chased him, and one pushed him, causing him to stumble to the ground, according to police. Police say Chasse tried to bite an officer. Witnesses said officers knocked Chasse to the pavement, landed on top of him, kicked him repeatedly and placed a Taser gun to his torso to stun him.
After arresting him, officers called for paramedics because Chasse was struggling to breathe. Police said 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 prepared to take him to the hospital. Chasse died in a patrol car.
During the next week, Police Chief Rosie Sizer gave almost daily updates to the mayor's aides and Commissioner Dan Saltzman, the current City Council president and acting mayor when Potter is out of town.
Hamilton said she decided to inform the mayor Friday, when the state medical examiner issued her report declaring Chasse's manner of death an accident caused by severe trauma to the chest that impaired his breathing.
Chasse's family contested her description of the death as an accident and criticized state and county leaders for not cooperating with their private investigation.