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What Happened to James Chasse: From "accident" to "tragedy"

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

From "accident" to "tragedy"

from Jack Bogadanski's Blog

Today's the day that a Multnomah County grand jury will hear the story of the death of "Jim Jim" Chasse, an unarmed, mentally ill man, at the hands of Portland police on September 17. In theory, criminal charges could be brought against the officers involved in the killing, but let's face it, given the history of how these things go in the Rose City (and we get at least a couple of them every year, it seems), the odds against an indictment are 1,000,000 to 1.

Already the only guy who would be pushing for criminal charges, District Attorney Mike Schrunk, is using words that don't sound very prosecutorial. From yesterday, in
He predicted that 12 to 15 witnesses could be called to testify, adding that his office had invited Chasse family attorney Tom Steenson to submit the names of anyone the family thought should testify.

“It’s a tragedy and we want to present all the facts to the grand jury,” said Schrunk.

Catch that? It's not an "incident," not a "homicide," not an "event." Already it's a "tragedy." You can almost hear the justifications ready to roll out. Just as you could when the medical examiner called the death an "accident," despite the statements of the eyewitnesses who said the police needlessly brutalized Chasse.

I wonder if Schrunk's got another killer cop defender coming in as an expert witness, as he has in the past. I wonder if the original police story of why they chased Chasse down -- "strange behavior" and "possible public urination" -- will morph into something different.

Of course, we'll never hear most of what goes down today. Grand jury proceedings are secret, and although the eywitnesses will get their say, they won't be around when the police and the medical tech who let Chasse die get on the stand. You'll never hear their story in their own words. Defenders of the police in these cases always say, "Don't rush to judgment. Wait until all the facts are known." The problem is that they never are.

Barring the unthinkable -- an indictment -- the only way the officers will have to answer tough questions in public will be if the Chasse family sues the city and the case goes to trial. If the officers were in the wrong, the city will offer the family a big bucks settlement to go away quietly. It would be a great gift to the residents of Portland if they didn't.

We need to watch the mayor like a hawk on this one. Former police chief, commissioner in charge of the bureau -- even if no crime was committed, it appears that some fundamental principles of community policing were disregarded in this case, and he ought to have to answer to the public for that. Reporters Maxine Bernstein of the O and Jim Redden of the Trib can hold his feet to the fire -- if they dare.

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