Early Sunday evening, September 17, in the Pearl District, police attempted to arrest 42-year-old James Phillip Chasse Jr.—it was an altercation that apparently led to the suspect's "accidental" death while in police custody.
Just before 5:30 pm at NW 11th and Everett, officers saw Chasse, who was acting odd, according to the police, as if he were on drugs. One officer reportedly thought Chasse was urinating on the street.
Chasse ran when officers approached him, and an officer pushed him, knocking him to the ground. Chasse is said to have "fought violently with the officers before they were able to take him into custody," according to a police bureau bulletin. Officers then called paramedics to the scene when Chasse began having difficulty breathing. The paramedics arrived to check him out, and Chasse was soon transported to the Multnomah County Detention Center in a patrol car.
At the jail, Chasse "again exhibited breathing problems," according to the police, and was transported to the hospital. He lost consciousness en route, around NE 33rd and Clackamas, and was pronounced dead at the hospital at 6:45 pm, less than two hours after police first made contact with him.
That's the official story from the police.
In the days since the incident, however, eyewitnesses have stepped forward to say Chasse's arrest was more violent than police have described. Witnesses say police punched Chasse in the face after they tackled him to the ground, and kicked him in the back of the head. The cops' actions, according to witnesses, left Chasse unconscious and bleeding from the mouth.
On September 22, the Oregon State Medical Examiner said that Chasse died of "broad-based blunt force trauma to the chest," and ruled the death "accidental." Chasse had broken ribs that impaired his ability to breath. There was no evidence of drugs in his system.
Jamie Marquez, who works in the Pearl, witnessed the incident. During a struggle to turn Chasse onto his belly after he was on the ground, "one of the cops started cocking his fist and getting ready to hit him, but thought about it and didn't," Marquez says. "Then I heard the Taser go off, and the guy was being punched in the face. I think the punching and kicking happened at the same time."
According to Marquez, Chasse was punched three or four times in the face with "haymaker" punches by one police officer, and kicked three to four times in the back of his head by the other cop, "with enough force to punt a football."
Other witnesses say Chasse lost consciousness and was lying on the ground for around 10 minutes, during which time more cops arrived on the scene.
"The cops were nervous," says Asa Battista, who did not see the initial arrest, but watched the aftermath. "I saw them all standing around, sort of looking at him and each other, like this was beyond what they'd intended."
Another eyewitness, David Lillegaard, says the cops occasionally tapped Chasse with their feet to see if he was conscious.
"He was face down on the concrete, and didn't look like he was breathing. At that point, I thought he was dead," Lillegaard says. Witnesses say Chasse had been bleeding from his mouth.
"They weren't trying to do anything—they didn't check his airways, or attempt any kind of triage," says Marquez, who has had some training in first aid. "It was like they'd hit an animal in the road, and they were like, 'Now what do we do?'"
An ambulance arrived, and a paramedic attended to Chasse, who regained consciousness. The cops then "hog-tied" the man, tying his arms and feet together behind his back, and carried him to a patrol car "like they were carrying a six-pack," says Marquez.
After Chasse was removed, witnesses say the paramedics cleaned up a pool of blood off the street.
"It was pretty disturbing," says Lillegaard. "I thought they should have taken him to the hospital, because I saw blood." Instead, Chasse was first transported to the Multnomah County Detention Center and taken into custody for resisting arrest, assault on an officer, and interfering with police.
The eyewitness accounts raise the question of why Chasse, who had been unconscious for several minutes and was bleeding from the mouth, was not taken straight to hospital in an ambulance. (Chasse's family has raised the same point.)
"That's the decision of the paramedics," says Detective Paul Dolbey, police spokesman. Allen Oswalt, spokesman for the paramedics, could not comment because the investigation is ongoing.
Asked whether it is legitimate for an officer to punch a man in the face or kick him in the head, Dolbey responds, "It depends on the actions of the suspect."
The officers involved in the incident, Sergeant Kyle Nice, Officer Christopher Humphreys, and Sheriff Deputy Brett Burton, have been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of a police investigation. The police have received several calls from witnesses, who will be interviewed by detectives. Police Chief Rosie Sizer and Mayor Tom Potter have called for a "public and transparent" investigation into Chasse's death.
"My dad's a cop," says Marquez, who says he's had trouble sleeping since witnessing the incident. "So I'm not biased. I respect their job—everyone's job is hard. But as a taxpayer, I pay for the cops to protect and serve, not to lose control. There needs to be accountability for this."
Dan Handelman at Portland Copwatch tracks deaths that involve the police, including "in-custody" deaths like Chasse's.
"We don't know how common this is, because often you don't hear about incidents of this kind," says Handelman. "But there have been more than 160 deaths nationwide involving Tasers, and once the guy had lost consciousness, it is unthinkable to me that they'd take him into custody rather than to hospital."