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What Happened to James Chasse: Police missed clues to Chasse's mental illness

Friday, October 20, 2006

Police missed clues to Chasse's mental illness

from The Oregonian, by Maxine Bernstein

As Portland Officer Christopher Humphreys tells it, it never entered his mind that James P. Chasse Jr., the disheveled man he saw shuffling at a street corner and then possibly urinating behind a tree on Sept. 17, suffered from a mental illness.

When Humphreys approached, the man walked off and then ran. Based on his 10 years of law enforcement experience, Humphreys presumed the man was drunk, on drugs, or involved in other criminal activity with a warrant for his arrest.

Even the "absolute sheer terror" he saw in the man's eyes --an expression Humphreys said he had never seen --led the officer to suspect the man possessed drugs or a weapon.

Transcripts of detectives' interviews with the three officers involved in Chasse's death show that none of the three officers suspected Chasse might be mentally ill until well after their knock-down struggle with him.

The police statements, released by Chasse's family, also reveal the inability of anyone to recognize the significant injuries Chasse had suffered until it was too late. One officer said that at no point did he suspect Chasse's repeated screaming was from pain.

They also illustrate the meager sharing of information between the officers, ambulance medics and jail medical staff who dealt with Chasse --a problem Portland Chief Rosie Sizer has vowed to correct.

Chasse, a 42-year-old man who suffered from schizophrenia, sustained multiple rib fractures, some of which punctured his left lung, early in his encounter with police, and died from broad-based blunt force trauma to his chest, an autopsy found.

The following is a narrative, based solely on the officers' account of what occurred. Transcripts of civilian witness accounts, some of which Chasse's family says contradict the police version of events, and all other police reports and investigative reports stemming from the case have not yet been released.

Disheveled man

Officer Humphreys couldn't help but notice the disheveled man, shuffling at the corner about 25 feet away.

Humphreys was assisting a sergeant on an unrelated call Sept. 17 when he spotted the man. Humphreys said he assumed the man was a transient and drunk, maybe waiting for a bus. The man had his back to Humphreys at Northwest 18th Avenue and Everett Street, his legs stiff, rhythmically stepping side to side.

At one point, the man turned and saw the officers. He immediately crossed the street, Humphreys said. The man's unusual behavior, plus the fact he walked away from police made Humphreys suspicious. He suggested to his sergeant and partner that they roll up and talk to him.

Humphreys and his TriMet patrol partner, Multnomah County deputy Brad Burton, drove up to Chasse on Northwest Everett, midway between 14th and 13th avenues. Chasse was on the south side, hunched over, standing by a tree, his backpack at his feet, police said.

"Oh, he's pissin'," Humphreys said to his partner. The officer made note that they were entering the revitalized Pearl District, a high-density area of restaurants and businesses.

Burton stopped the patrol car. Humphreys stepped from the passenger side onto the sidewalk and took two steps towards Chasse, about 10 to 15 feet away. Chasse, his back to police, grabbed his backpack and started to walk eastbound, the officers said.

Burton tried to stop him.

"I was like, 'Hey,' you know, and I whistled at him, or something just to get his attention," Burton said.

Both officers say Chasse turned and made eye contact with them. They were both struck by what Humphreys called Chasse's look of "absolute sheer terror."

The officers said Chasse started running east. Humphreys and Burton chased after him, yelling stop.

Chasse falls

They ran down a slight slope toward the southwest corner of Northwest Everett Street and 13th Avenue. Humphreys said he shoved Chasse down with both his forearms against Chasse's back.

The officers' accounts of what occurred next conflict, but at least one described it as "chaos."

Humphreys said Chasse fell to the ground, and he fell on the sidewalk, right past Chasse. He did a shoulder-roll on his left side, and felt his left hip jam against his flashlight in his back pocket. When he rolled onto his stomach, he said he saw Central Precinct Sgt. Kyle Nice wrestling with Chasse.

Nice, who had pulled ahead of Humphreys and Burton and had tried to cut Chasse off, said he saw Humphreys grab Chasse in a "bear-hug-type" hold and tackle him to the ground. He said Humphreys fell on top of Chasse in the midback area.

Burton said he saw Chasse and Humphreys collide but wasn't sure how they landed. Burton said he struggled to control Chasse's legs as Chasse twisted and turned, kicking and screaming.

Nice said he grabbed Chasse's left arm to pin him to the ground. Humphreys said he got up and grabbed Chasse's right arm, describing Chasse as screaming, kicking and flailing.

"I was yelling get on your stomach, stop fighting, get on your stomach," Humphreys said.

Humphreys yelled at Burton to grab his Taser, but then heard Nice say, 'No, not yet."

Struggle on ground

Nice said he felt a sharp pain on his lower right calf and realized Chasse had bit him. He jerked his leg out from under Chasse's left armpit, yelling at him, "Do not bite me!"

Nice yelled at Chasse to get on his stomach. As they struggled, Nice said Chasse got hold of his right pant leg cuff with his teeth.

"I pulled my right foot back and kicked him in the upper chest," Nice said.

Burton said he punched Chasse "once, maybe more" in the back. He yelled at Chasse to stop resisting. Burton said he placed his Taser to the back of one of Chasse's upper legs, holding it against his urine-soaked jeans. Burton said the Taser had no effect and he reholstered it. At one point, Burton said he dug the knuckle of his right index finger into Chasse's rib to try to get Chasse to give up.

Humphreys said he struck Chasse in the face when he pulled his fist back to avoid getting bitten, and then punched him again in the face with a closed fist. Nice said he put his knee on Chasse's left shoulder blade to pin him down.

Throughout the fight, Chasse uttered what Humphreys called a "blood-curdling" open-mouthed scream, like "Aaah!" and screamed "No" three times.

The officers didn't smell alcohol on Chasse's breath, but now figured he was high, describing him as "wide-eyed," panicked and screaming.

As soon as more officers arrived, Chasse suddenly stopped resisting, the officers said. They were able to handcuff his wrists behind his back. As they rolled Chasse onto his right side, Nice said he immediately noticed Chasse was unconscious.

"His eyes were closed, and I looked and I couldn't tell if he was breathing," Nice said.

Medics arrive

Nice's first thought was cocaine psychosis and called for Code 3 emergency medical at 5:23:04, saying the subject was unconscious, and had been fighting with police.

Just then, Chasse opened his eyes and was breathing, Nice said.

At 5:25 p.m., American Medical Response Ambulance medics arrived, followed by Portland Fire Bureau medics. They checked Chasse's vital signs, including blood pressure, respiration rate and glucose levels.

As they examined Chasse, the officers stepped back. Nice lifted his pant leg to check his bite wound; no skin was broken but he cleaned the area with a wipe. Humphreys walked back to the tree where he first approached Chasse, looking to see if he dropped any drugs.

Humphreys said he found a "white powdery streak" ground into the dirt that he figured might be crack cocaine remnants. He scraped up some granules into a plastic bag.

Nice said he confirmed with the medics that Chasse was medically stable, that he need not be taken to a hospital. Nice said the medics did not relay what, if any, injuries they noted. He said the ambulance driver said he was "probably high" on cocaine.

The AMR medic handed Humphreys a written form to sign.

"I said, 'Well, he's good to go?' And she's like yeah," Humphreys said.

The officers bound Chasse's ankles together, and tied them to his wrists, cuffed behind him. They carried him to the back of Humphrey's patrol car. He lay on his left side with his head by the driver's seat.

Humphreys said Chasse was mumbling in the back seat, and asked for his backpack. When Chasse began answering his questions, Humphreys opened the back door. " 'If you try to bite me or kick me,' I said, 'it's gonna be really, really bad,' " Humphreys said.

He asked Chasse if he had a wallet. "He goes, 'I have a wallet, I have a wallet,' and he kinda repeated it a couple times. So at this point, I'm starting to think this is a gentleman that's got some mental health issues."

Humphreys pulled a wallet from Chasse's left front pocket, and found his ID.

"What did I do? What did I do?" Chasse asked, as Humphreys read him his Miranda rights.

Chasse asked for water, and Mellaril. The officers weren't sure what Mellaril was, but suspected it sounded like some pill. Mellaril is an antipsychotic often prescribed to patients with schizophrenia, which Chasse suffered from.

Unconscious at jail

At the jail, deputies helped remove Chasse from the car because police said he wedged his foot under a seat. Humphreys asked the deputies to cover Chasse's head with a nylon spit sock, in case Chasse tried to bite someone.

The officers and deputies carried a struggling Chasse into an isolation cell and placed him on the floor. They cut the tie binding his legs to his wrists, and went to uncuff his wrists. Suddenly, Chasse stopped fighting.

"He's gone unconscious again," Humphreys thought. He turned to a deputy, and said, "We need to get medical. He passed out on us before and let's make sure he's breathing." Humphreys walked out, washed his hands and saw a nurse looking through the cell door window.

"The prison nurse is like, why was I called? Why didn't I see him before he came in . . . then she said, 'We can't take him, look at him, he's twitchy' . . . "

Since the jail wouldn't take Chasse, deputies prepared him to the ride to Portland Adventist Hospital, putting on leg chains and cuffing his wrists. They placed him back in the patrol car.

As the officers turned onto Interstate 5 north, they heard Chasse mumbling. As they veered onto Interstate 84 east, Humphreys heard a thud. He saw Chasse leaning against the passenger side door. The officer couldn't tell whether Chasse was breathing; he still had the spit sock over his head, but he noticed his left arm was "stark white."

"We gotta get off, we gotta get off," Humphreys yelled to Burton, directing him to activate his lights and take the next exit.

"James , James, James, wake up James!" Humphreys yelled.

Chasse dies

They pulled off the Northeast 33rd Avenue exit, turned right at the end of the off-ramp and stopped. Burton radioed for medical. Humphreys dragged Chasse from the back seat, pulled off the spit sock. His eyes were closed; mouth slightly open. He laid Chasse on his back on a sidewalk. He and Burton checked for a pulse, but didn't feel one. They removed his handcuffs.

Burton patted Chasse's head, slapped his cheek, yelled his name. He tilted Chasse's head back to clear an airway, and swept blood from his mouth with his finger. Humphreys started chest compressions, estimating he did at least three series of five.

"I remember lookin' at him going man, you know, I've gotta get some oxygen to him but I don't want to put my lips on his lips," Humphreys said.

Burton ran to the back of his car, tearing through a bag to find an air mask. At that moment, a nearby resident came up, offering to connect a defibrillator to Chasse's chest. As soon as the machine was attached, it spit out, "shock not advised."

The officers heard the ambulance sirens growing louder.

"You're sitting there, you know , beggin' him and God and everybody else, you know," Humphreys said. "And try to shove life back into him."

The officers backed away when medics arrived. They worked on him at the scene, and then rushed him to Providence Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:04 p.m.

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