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What Happened to James Chasse: As Chasse controversy deepens, cops have yet to release key documents

Thursday, October 19, 2006

As Chasse controversy deepens, cops have yet to release key documents

from the Portland Tribune

Releasing witness statements before all investigation documents are assembled 'wouldn't be appropriate,' police say

Family members Mark Chasse (left) and James Chasse Sr. (right) listen as their lawyer, Tom Steenson, speaks at a news conference this week about James Chasse Jr.’s death in police custody last month.

Portland police officer Christopher Humphreys seemed certain when detectives interviewed him last month, three days after the in-custody death of James Chasse Jr.: When he fell after a foot chase, he landed not on top of the much-smaller Chasse but on the sidewalk.

The Portland Police Bureau, however, contends that Humphreys did land on the 42-year-old Chasse, and that it has witness statements from other cops and civilians to prove it.

This particular turn of fact is critical, given that the police bureau has described the fall as causing the punctured lung and the 26 breaks to 16 ribs that caused internal bleeding, killing Chasse less than two hours later Sept. 17.

With the grand jury over and with no charges levied against Humphreys or anyone else in Chasse’s death, those witness statements are public records.

But the police bureau has refused to release them yet, preferring to wait up to two weeks to release all its materials on the case at once.

"It just wouldn't be appropriate at this time," bureau spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz said on Wednesday.

On Friday, he said, "To understand what occurred, you have to read the entire investigation. Because the investigation is typically about 1,000 pages, it typically takes us about 10 days to two weeks" to gather all the documents.

Dan Handelman, co-founder of the watchdog group Portland Copwatch, said releasing such documents could save the police bureau public headaches and help the agency appear more transparent.

“If those statements back up what they say, they should release them,” he said. “Well, honestly, even if they don’t back up the police, they should release them.”

Portland police said as fact Tuesday that their own investigation had concluded that Humphreys fell on Chasse after chasing him in the Pearl District, causing the injuries.

But a transcript of Humphreys’ interview with Portland police Detective Lynn Courtney, dated Sept. 20, shows that may not have been the case.

“Um, and I, I actually I remember was just goin’ down I thought boy this is gonna hurt, um on the pavement,” Humphreys said in the transcript, released to reporters Wednesday by a lawyer for Chasse’s family. “And I, I land on the pavement and I kinda rolled, and as I rolled I went up on my left side and I wear my uh, I keep a small flashlight in the left rear pocket and it actually jammed against my hip.”

Courtney asked Humphreys to clarify whether he fell on top of Chasse.

“Yeah, I fell on the sidewalk,” Humphreys said. “I went right, right over and past him.”

Other statements disagree

A day earlier, at a news conference called in response to a Multnomah County grand jury’s decision not to charge anyone with a crime in Chasse’s death, police could not have been more clear.

“As Mr. Chasse fell to the ground, he unexpectedly rolled into the path of the officer,” a “fact sheet” issued to reporters reads. “The officer then accidentally fell onto Mr. Chasse and rolled off.”

Police Chief Rosie Sizer and homicide unit Sgt. George Burke, whose detectives investigated the incident, each offered that statement as well.

Schmautz and Burke said witnesses told police they saw Humphreys fall on Chasse.

“The trouble is, there was no other time that anyone else – including the civilian witnesses – saw anybody else fall on or sit on or roll on Mr. Chasse, so there is no other way to see it,” Schmautz said. “But if you were to ask officer Humphreys, he would still say it didn’t happen.”

But the interview of Sgt. Kyle Nice, who also tussled with Chasse the day he died, is unclear on that point.

“It appeared, it appeared that Officer Humphreys kind of landed slightly off of the subject,” Nice told Courtney in an interview Sept. 18, one day after the incident, according to a transcript. “Kind of half on his right side and half on the ground, ’cause I could see you know, the backpack that he had wound up separated from us but I don’t know. He immediately started to squirm and attempt to get away so they weren’t in a static position that I can remember for very long.”

Nice said Humphreys took Chasse down with a “straight bear hug type tackle,” not the left-forearm shove that police described Humphreys using and which would be consistent with current training methods.

The third law-enforcement officer at the scene, Multnomah County sheriff’s deputy Brad Burton, also was unclear about the takedown in responding to a question from Portland police detective Jon Rhodes.

“I mean you can use the word tackle in a very general sense,” Burton said. “Just because someone’s forced to the ground people use that word, but I don’t know if he, if he wrapped his arms around him, I don’t know if he landed on top of him, all I know is they collided running in the same direction and uh, I believe both went to the ground and I’m not sure where they landed.”

Family seeks answers

Chasse’s family is contemplating a lawsuit, among other options, their lawyer, Tom Steenson, said Wednesday at a news conference held at the World Trade Center complex in downtown Portland.

He lambasted police for not being more forthcoming with records, saying he received the interview transcripts from the Multnomah County district attorney’s office.

Chasse’s brother and father attended and sat with Steenson near the nest of television and radio microphones.

They barely spoke.

“We’re private people,” Mark Chasse, the victim’s younger brother, said.

Steenson said the grand jury had been “misled” and that the jurors’ decision not to indict anyone denied the Chasse family justice.

He said William Brady, the Oregon state medical examiner from 1969 to 1985 who has been hired by the family as an expert witness in this case, told the grand jury that the injuries Chasse received seemed inconsistent with the story behind them.

“We would hope that Chief Sizer and the police bureau would stop releasing false information to the public,” Steenson said.

Sizer and Mayor Tom Potter, at his own news conference Tuesday, apologized to the Chasse family.

Steenson was unimpressed. After leaning over and listening to whispers from Chasse’s father, also named James, Steenson sat forward toward the microphones.

“The apology is a far cry from justice for Jim Chasse,” he said.

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