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What Happened to James Chasse: Files detail Chasse's final days

Friday, November 10, 2006

Files detail Chasse's final days

from The Oregonian, by Maxine Bernstein

When a Project Respond mental health worker and a Portland officer came to check on James P. Chasse Jr. on Sept. 15, Chasse came out of his apartment, spotted the uniformed officer and repeatedly chanted, "Don't hurt me," before he ran out of the building.

Project Respond, an agency of mental health professionals who do crisis response and outreach, had gone to Chasse's Northwest Broadway unit after receiving reports from Chasse's mental health case manager that he wasn't eating, and reportedly was urinating and defecating on his carpet.

When Chasse ran from the building, Officer Jason Worthington asked Project Respond worker Ela Howard if he should chase after Chasse.

Howard said no.

But she advised the officer to flag Chasse, a 42-year-old who suffered from schizophrenia, in the police database as one of their clients and to page her agency for assistance if police encountered him again, according to newly released police reports.

Two days later, when other officers spotted Chasse on the street, nothing was flagged in the Portland Police Bureau's database to call out Project Respond mental health specialists because no system exists to do that, said Sgt. Brian Schmautz, Portland police spokesman.

Police records noted Chasse as possibly mentally ill, yet police say it wouldn't have made a difference because the officers who confronted him Sept. 17 had no idea who he was until after his arrest.

Chasse died in police custody on Sept. 17. Two Portland officers and a Multnomah County sheriff's deputy had struggled to arrest Chasse once they saw him shuffling on a street corner and possibly urinating behind a bush. Police said he ran when they approached. They chased him, knocked him to the ground and struggled to handcuff him.

Chasse died from broad-based blunt-force trauma to the chest, an autopsy found. He suffered 26 breaks to 16 ribs, some of which punctured his left lung. A Multnomah County grand jury found no criminal wrongdoing.

On Thursday, seven weeks after Chasse's death, the Police Bureau released more than 1,000 pages of investigative reports stemming from its criminal investigation of Chasse's death.

The reports reveal his mother's and caseworker's concerns about Chasse's mental health in the weeks preceding his death; witnesses' accounts, including a Portland attorney who said Chasse never ran from police; and statements by the Multnomah County jail nurse who said she looked at Chasse through a cell door window for less than 11/2 minutes and thought his five-second seizure could have been faked.

Police declined to release any medical records they obtained on Chasse, but a detective's report summarizes some of their findings. Chasse had a case manager from Cascadia Behavioral Health Care. From the case manager's progress reports between Aug. 17 and Sept. 13, there are indications that Chasse was not taking his medication, had quit bathing and was urinating in the hallways of the Helen Swindells Building where he had a second-floor room.

An Aug. 17 Cascadia progress note said it was likely that Chasse would need hospitalization to help him go back on medication and regain the ability to care for his basic needs, Detective Jon Rhodes wrote in his reports. It also said the caseworker would try to avoid an eviction by continuing assessments.

Chasse had at least two contacts with his mother, Linda Gerber, in August and in mid-September. Gerber told the caseworkers that she was concerned her son wasn't eating and was losing weight and wearing dirty clothing.

Force alarms witnesses

Transcripts of the witnesses' interviews show there were various accounts of how Chasse was knocked to the ground. But several eyewitnesses expressed concern about excessive force right from the start, one even asking to speak to a supervisor at the scene.

Portland lawyer Mark Ginsberg, who was in his car on Northwest 13th Avenue, stopped at the Everett Street intersection, said he saw two officers walk up to a scruffy-looking man who was standing on the sidewalk. Ginsberg didn't think Chasse was urinating. When officers approached him, Chasse took a pivot step, and then the officers tackled him. He said he thought one officer did a "flying tackle," like a football tackle, and landed on top of Chasse as they hit the ground.

"He took maybe one step and then . . . the officers were just on top of him," Ginsberg said in an Oct. 4 interview with detectives.

Alireza Justin Soltani, a computer consultant who lives in the Pearl District, said he was driving east on Everett Street when he saw Chasse. He said Chasse was standing on the south sidewalk, leaning against a parking meter. When police walked up to Chasse, he started screaming as though he was panic-stricken, Soltani said.

"When you saw him, I definitely thought he was mentally challenged because of the way he was yelling," Soltani said.

Soltani saw Officer Christopher Humphreys tackle Chasse. "The officer was half-twisted on him," Soltani said. The police struggled to hold Chasse down.

"The guy was just squirming . . . like a fish out of water, just squirming," Soltani said.

According to Soltani, Humphreys kept tapping Chasse in the forehead with his forefinger or middle finger --something no other witness recounted.

Employee recalls "chaos"

Jamie Marquez, an employee of Bluehour restaurant at the corner, was on the outdoor patio when he saw Chasse knocked to the ground and heard his high-pitched screams, "No!" as officers ordered him to get on his stomach.

Marquez first described it as a football tackle, "like you know a nose guard tackling into the quarterback." He said the officers didn't have Chasse in a bear hug, but just threw Chasse to the ground, and "they went down with him, too."

He said the officers punched Chasse in the face and kicked him in the back of his head. He said it quickly escalated into "complete chaos" and a "state of disarray." He said he thought Chasse stopped breathing.

"The cops kinda kicked his body with their foot to try to get him to move," Marquez said. "He wasn't moving."

Marquez watched police handcuff Chasse and tie his feet behind him to his wrists. Marquez ran into the restaurant and grabbed his cell phone to take photos, which he e-mailed to detectives. He said he heard Chasse scream, "No, don't leave me, don't leave me," once a female paramedic stepped away.

"It just kinda made me ill," Marquez said.

Another witness, Constance Doolan, later complained to detectives because she said an officer at the scene told her that they found crack cocaine on Chasse and that he had 14 prior drug convictions.

There were no drugs in Chasse's system, and he has no prior criminal record.

American Medical Response paramedics who evaluated Chasse at the scene refused to be interviewed by detectives. Their attorney, Jean Ohman Back, told detectives the company was concerned that AMR interview transcripts would be discoverable in any future civil litigation, the police reports say. They told grand jurors that they found Chasse's vital signs to be normal, and policedrove him to jail.

"We're not takin' him"

At the jail, nurse Patricia Gayman said she heard a deputy say, "We don't think he's breathing," over an intercom. She grabbed a pair of gloves and went to the separation cell. The door was closed, and several officers were standing around it. She looked through the cell door window and saw that Chasse was breathing and moving. Then he seemed to have a five-second seizure. "His body stiffened, and then he started to shake," she said. "Before he even stopped that little seizure, I said, 'He's gotta go out, we're not takin' him."

She said she didn't go inside the cell because Chasse had no restraints on, and the door was closed and she assumed he was violent. She said she defers to officers as to whether they think a person is safe to approach and that she has gone into a separation cell "many times" in the past. There was no discussion as to whether Chasse should be taken by ambulance to a hospital.

As police drove Chasse to Portland Adventist Hospital, they noticed he had slumped against the passenger door. They pulled off Interstate 84 at Northeast 33rd Avenue and dragged Chasse from the car. They tried chest compressions and called an ambulance.

Witness Michael Gentry said he saw the medics working on Chasse. They "kept pumping his chest, kept pumping it, and they just kept trying, and we were just like, dude, he's getting whiter and whiter."

Chasse was pronounced dead at Providence Hospital.

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