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What Happened to James Chasse: Case Not Closed - Three questions still remain unanswered in the death of James P. Chasse Jr.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Case Not Closed - Three questions still remain unanswered in the death of James P. Chasse Jr.

from Willamette Week

Unless you've been on a reality TV show that forbids contact with the outside world, you probably know about the Sept. 17 death of James P. Chasse Jr., following a scuffle with police.

Many questions have been raised in the past month about how police officers dealt with Chasse, a 42-year-old schizophrenic man, and how his chest was crushed. Police say the injuries probably happened when Officer Christopher Humphreys, who was chasing Chasse, fell on top of him or tackled him.

Chasse's family, which has released transcripts of police interviews with the officers involved, points out a problem with that account, however: Humphreys told investigators he "fell on the sidewalk," not on Chasse—raising the prospect that the injuries were caused by punches and kicks delivered by officers in their struggle to subdue him.

"Not a single one of the officers describes it the way the bureau describes it," says family attorney Tom Steenson. The medical examiner's report, however, backs up the police version, saying the injuries were inconsistent with a beating death.

A grand jury earlier this month cleared the two Portland police officers and the Multnomah County sheriff's deputy of any criminal wrongdoing in Chasse's death. But three nagging questions remain unanswered:

Should there be consequences for the ambulance company or the medics who refused to talk with detectives about what happened as part of their contract to provide ambulance services for the county?

Medics from American Medical Response, which collected $21.6 million last year under its contract with Multnomah County, wouldn't talk to investigators. Detectives tried to interview AMR employees before and after the grand jury met, but say those employees wouldn't talk with them.

County Counsel Agnes Sowle says no rule exists that would punish county subcontractors, such as the medics or their bosses, for not cooperating with police, even if the actions under investigation were part of their contractual duties. Nonetheless, if medics working under one government contract are impeding another government agency's investigation, maybe pouring taxpayer money into their pockets should be reconsidered.

We asked several county commissioners whether they were taking a closer look at AMR's contract in light of Chasse's death. The only office that returned calls (Lisa Naito's) said Sowle had directed them not to speak about it due to potential litigation.

AMR spokesman Jason Sorrick says the company doesn't have a policy against cooperating with police investigations, and that employees "cooperated fully" by testifying before the grand jury. He would not address their refusal to talk with Portland police.

It's also worth noting that Chasse suffered massive internal injuries, including a punctured lung. According to the medical examiner's report, police, not medics, decided whether to take Chasse to a hospital or to jail.

Why has public outrage at Chasse's death been stronger than that in other recent deaths at the hands of police that seem to warrant equal scrutiny?

Chasse's death a little over a month ago has prompted at least 15 stories totaling about 12,000 words in The Oregonian, as well as others in the Portland Tribune and on TV. Yet the January shooting death of an unarmed man by Portland police Lt. Jeffrey Kaer outside his sister's home, while Kaer was supposed to be on duty in another precinct, merited less than half as many words in The Oregonian over nearly 10 months.

A grand jury cleared Kaer, who still must face a departmental disciplinary board. He told investigators he shot to prevent himself from being run over.

Why did the Portland Police Bureau release an official "fact sheet" Oct. 17 on the death that said "one officer used a forearm to push Mr. Chasse to the ground" when there's no agreement on this point in the taped statements taken from the officers involved?

"It's common to have difference of opinion among witnesses," says Portland Police spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz. "What the detectives will do is take the totality of information and develop what they believe is the most likely series of events."

The Police Bureau's full report on Chasse's death, with witness statements and other materials, is expected to be released by next week.

A candlelight vigil for Chasse will be held at 7 pm Friday, Oct. 27, at First Congregational Church, 1126 SW Park Ave.

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