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What Happened to James Chasse: Chasse death sparks a change

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Chasse death sparks a change


from The Oregonian


Chasse death sparks a change

I n the wake of a mentally ill man's death in police custody last fall, the Portland Police Bureau has moved with impressive speed to improve departmental policies. One change announced this week clarifies what police should, and shouldn't, do when they use force and have reason to believe the confrontation may have resulted in injuries.

On the "should" list: Police should explain how much force they used. Paramedics, jail nurses and other emergency medical personnel need to know that, but it apparently wasn't fully communicated Sept. 17, when James Philip Chasse Jr. died in police custody.

On the "shouldn't" list: Police, in general, probably have no business transporting badly injured people to the hospital, unless there is no other way to get them there. An ambulance should do the transporting.

The obvious exception, of course, is when it's the best or only way to save someone's life. One concern about the new policy is that it involves a certain amount of additional paperwork that may bog things down rather than speed things up. Not every situation can be scripted according to policy. Under some circumstances, it's conceivable that the new policy could actually hinder or slow emergency response to an injured person instead of hastening it, as the policy is supposed to do.

Chasse, 42, died in police custody while officers were, belatedly, transporting him to a hospital. Had Chasse been taken to the hospital via ambulance --or if the true extent of his injuries had been understood --Chasse might be alive today.

Chasse suffered from schizophrenia. When police confronted him Sept. 17, after observing him possibly urinating in public, their orders to him to stop did not compute. He was so terrified he ran away. Police chased him. It's not clear what happened next (police contend an officer may have fallen on the emaciated man), but what is known is that Chasse suffered multiple rib fractures that punctured a lung. Later that day, these injuries apparently led to his death from what a medical examiner ruled was "broad-based blunt force trauma to the chest."

Paramedics called to the scene of the police confrontation with Chasse didn't detect his injuries, however. They observed his vital signs as normal. It wasn't until Chasse suffered what apparently was a seizure in a jail holding cell that police decided to transport him by patrol car to the hospital.

As The Oregonian's Maxine Bernstein reported Tuesday, there was apparently no discussion about the possible need for speed. In hindsight, it's obvious that jail medical staff should have done a far better job of assessing Chasse's injuries. Had that happened, it would have been clear that it wasn't safe to transport him by patrol car.

Chasse's death provoked a certain amount of finger-pointing among the respective agencies involved. The new policy may help to clear up misunderstandings by delineating their responsibilities more sharply. That's good. But this change has to be monitored.

Everyone involved must ensure that the net result is to speed up care for injured people, and never, under any circumstances, to slow it down.

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