from the Portland Mercury, by Matt Davis & Erin Lacour
The official police investigative reports into the in-custody death of James Philip Chasse Jr. on September 17 appear to have ignored—or at least heavily re-interpreted—the direct testimony of several independent witnesses.
The police investigation found that Chasse was killed because Officer Christopher Humphreys "accidentally fell" on him, as Sergeant Kyle Nice and Sheriff Deputy Brett Burton ran to catch up. But several witnesses—in separate transcripts of their statements released on November 9, alongside the cops' official investigation—said the cops "leapt" on or "tackled" Chasse. (The Multnomah County Grand Jury, on October 17, did not find the officers criminally liable for his death.)
The collected documents, which weighed several pounds, were not made available in electronic form, and were only being given out in bundles last week to media that had requested them weeks in advance. The cops defended the eight-week delay between Chasse's death and the release of the documents, saying they wanted to be fair in releasing the investigation to all media simultaneously. They also said it took a while to ensure all medical information was expunged, as required under federal law.
The witness statements paint a vivid picture of what happened on September 17.
"As soon as the guy was down, he basically leapt, leaped on him," said witness Justin Soltani of one of the officers, in a phone interview with detectives on September 24. But Detective Jon Rhodes' separate investigative report said, "Soltani believed the officer fell on the subject he was chasing, stating, 'The officer was half twisted on him,'" making no reference to Soltani's description of the officer who "leapt."
Another witness told the investigator a similar story. Rhodes' question was, "Can you tell what the catalyst for him going to the ground is? Was it a push, was it a trip or, or could you tell, did they just all of a sudden kinda all go down?" Diane Loghry said, in a telephone interview with Rhodes on September 21: "He went down because three guys were on top of him." But Rhodes' report of Loghry's testimony waters down the account to "she saw officers take the subject to the ground."
"I saw them throw him down to the ground," witness Jamie Marquez told the police on September 24. "It was like a... a football tackle, like you know, a... a nose guard tackling into the quarterback, kinda just throwin' him to the ground."
Detective Lynn Courtney's write-up of Marquez's testimony, however, only says he "observed three police officers chasing Chasse and watched them tackle him to the ground at that intersection."
Witness Randall Stuart told the police on September 21 that "the three men in uniform were able to gain on him enough to leap upon... I think it's fair to say everybody leapt upon him." Courtney's report, once again, tempers the testimony, writing that Stuart saw "the three pursuing officers jump on the individual, causing them all to fall to the ground."
Another red flag raised in the investigative report is the testimony of another witness, Constance Doolan, which indicates that one of the officers lied to her about Chasse's historic use of drugs. Doolan says an officer on the scene told her Chasse had "14 former convictions for crack cocaine," and how he and his colleagues "found a vial of crack cocaine" on Chasse that afternoon.
Chasse had no drugs on him or in his bloodstream, according to the autopsy and police reports. But the investigating officers do not appear to have asked Doolan which officer told her this, or for a description of him to try to ascertain who he was. From the investigation's transcripts, their only response to her story about an officer's apparent fabrication was, "Um-hm."
Chasse's lawyer, Tom Steenson, says the cops have not "had the common courtesy" yet to send him a copy of the investigation and witness transcripts they have released to the media. He does say, however, that what the transcripts appear to reveal is not surprising.
"If the detectives are summarizing witnesses' statements in this way, it is consistent with the approach of the city and police bureau so far," he says. "Consistently, from the moment this matter became public, the police bureau and the city have put out information that is false and not accurate in terms of what witnesses saw."
"The detective's summaries are not designed to reinterpret or summarize the witnesses' statements," says the Portland Police Bureau's Public Information Officer Brian Schmautz. "There is no attempt to change, delude, or decrease what is said, nor any intent of subterfuge. If you're suggesting the detectives are attempting to be sneaky, that is why we have released the transcripts—for the sake of transparency."
As far as the allegations of lying about Chasse's drug use are concerned, while it is rare for officers to be fired for use of force, they have been sacked for lying. In May and June of 1999, the bureau fired Officers Kenneth Ellison and Donald Warren, after one denied reversing into a light pole in a parking lot, and the other called in sick when he was not.
"Usually officers don't get fired for use of force, but for lying, cheating, or stealing," says Portland Copwatch activist Dan Handelman. Of Doolan's testimony, he says: "This is just one witness statement, but if it happened, then it's pretty outrageous."
"The police have repeatedly attempted to suggest that drugs were involved," says Steenson, who is still considering the possibility of a civil lawsuit with the Chasse family, "and that somehow, suspicion of drug use would justify what they did."
"I cannot explain that comment," says Schmautz. "There is no information that any of these officers had had contact with Chasse, so why would someone say that? Either it is somehow a misinterpretation of what was said, or it is wrong."