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What Happened to James Chasse: Chasse death stays hazy

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Chasse death stays hazy

from Portland Tribune
City presses to protect cops’ internal probe in mentally ill man’s case

As the one-year anniversary of the death of James Chasse Jr. approaches, mental health activists and Portland city officials will spend it in contradictory ways.

In a 4 p.m. ceremony Monday at City Hall, the Mental Health Association of Portland will ask for more information about Chasse’s controversial death. The group’s request, however, will come at a time when the city is going to court to prevent the release of more information about the incident.

On Sept. 17, 2006, near Northwest 18th Avenue and Everett Street, Portland Police officer Christopher Humphreys thought he saw the 42-year-old Chasse, who was mentally ill, urinating publicly.

When Chasse ran, officers gave chase and tackled and subdued him. An autopsy report attributed his death to massive internal trauma, including the fracturing of almost all of Chasse’s ribs.

A grand jury found insufficient evidence to file criminal charges against the officers involved. But that is not the end of the matter. An internal investigation scrutinizing whether officers handled the incident properly will not be completed until early next year, according to the city attorney’s office.

Also, Chasse’s family has filed a lawsuit against the city. It’s in that context that the city attorney’s office has requested a protective order to prevent the release of the bureau’s internal investigation — once it is completed — as well as other documents.

Absent such an order, the internal report almost assuredly would be releasable under Oregon Public Records law. But if a federal judge grants the city’s request, the internal probe would be kept secret indefinitely.

Jason Renaud, who heads the Mental Health Association of Portland, said the internal probe would resolve some of the unanswered questions swirling around how “Jim-Jim” died.

“I would encourage the city to be open with this document, to not pursue this, and to disclose this information,” Renaud said. He added that what will make people feel safer is “not more training, not more officers, not a better mental health system, but truth and trust.”

Other reports released

The standard incident reports of the Chasse incident were released following the grand jury’s decision to not issue indictments. However, investigations by the bureau’s Internal Affairs Division often turn up more information.

In the city attorney’s motion to the court, the city claims that Internal Affairs reports are kept confidential as a matter of policy. The filing cites the privacy of officers and witnesses interviewed, and maintains that release of Internal Affairs reports would discourage people from being honest in future Internal Affairs investigations.

In reality, the city often releases such reports voluntarily in matters of great public interest, as called for by Oregon Public Records law.

Last month, the city attorney’s office voluntarily released the entire Internal Affairs investigation of the shooting of Dennis Lamar Young by police Lt. Jeff Kaer. It did so despite the threat of civil litigation by Young’s family.

And following the savage beating of a man by two off-duty cops outside a downtown nightclub in 2002, the city voluntarily released Internal Affairs reports that showed which Portland officers had tried to protect the perpetrators from a criminal investigation, and which officers did their jobs conscientiously.

Bureau managers sometimes release Internal Affairs reports because they feel “the public interest outweighs privacy interests, so we’re not going to fight (their release),” police spokesman Brian Schmautz said. He added that he has no opinion on the request for a protective order in the Chasse case.
Commissioners wonder

Asked about the request for a protective order, John Doussard, spokesman for Mayor Tom Potter, released the following statement:

“I can’t comment on the specifics of the Chasse case because it’s pending. But a ‘protective order’ is a routine legal step in these kinds of cases that both sides use, and it’s ultimately up to the judge to decide how or even if it will be used (by) the parties. The Mayor was not told by the City Attorney because there wasn’t a reason to tell him — he doesn’t micromanage pretrial legal maneuvers.”

Commissioners Sam Adams and Dan Saltzman did not return calls from the Portland Tribune regarding the case.

Commissioner Randy Leonard said that as long as the outcome of disciplinary proceedings is kept secret, he favors the release of internal probes when the public interest calls for it. As far as the Chasse protective order, Leonard said: “Yeah, that concerns me. I intend to ask questions about it.”

Commissioner Erik Sten said that he needs more information, and understands why the city might want to delay the release of the report. But generally speaking, “I think the public has the right to know what happened, particularly in a case this tragic,” he said.

Dan Handelman, a volunteer with Portland Copwatch, called the request for a protective order “stupid… . It makes them look like they’re trying to hide something.”

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