Phoning it In 

Do We Finally Have Closure on the Chasse Case?

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FOUR YEARS AFTER the beating and death of James Chasse Jr. at the hands of Portland police officers, the case is officially closed. Portland City Council awarded a $1.6 million settlement to his family on Wednesday, July 28—hours before voting to accept a critical report on the city's response to the death of 42-year-old Chasse, who was suffering from schizophrenia when he died in 2006.

For both votes, the council chambers were strangely empty: Randy Leonard was absent from the evening session. Dan Saltzman (the former police commissioner) and Mayor Sam Adams (the current police commissioner, who wrested the post from Saltzman in April) were absent for both sessions. Adams, who said he had strep throat, participated by speakerphone from his home.

That left the two most junior commissioners, Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz, alone to review the report.

"I felt sorry for you," Adams joked with Fish after a council session the following evening. "You looked lonely up there."

The settlement relieves the city of its civil liability, and with the case closed, the officers involved in Chasse's death (Officer Chris Humphreys, Sergeant Kyle Nice, and Sheriff's Deputy Bret Burton) will likely never be criminally charged. "This brings to a close a very, very tragic and troubling chapter in our city government," said Adams over the phone, adding that "we've made improvements but we have more to make."

The payout also means that the Chasse family's lawsuit against the city will never go to court—which disappoints the family's lawyer, Tom Steenson. Going to court could have won the family more money, but perhaps more importantly, it could have sparked a new investigation of the officers and brought more facts to light.

"We were going to win," says Steenson. The announcement of a settlement agreement in May left him sitting on piles of evidence that have never been publicly revealed, including photographs, the results of a second autopsy, and over 120 depositions from experts and eyewitnesses.

"If you go to that deposition testimony, there are descriptions of [Chasse] being tackled, beaten, kicked, crying for mercy, wanting help, screaming in pain," says Steenson.

As part of the settlement, a judge agreed to release key parts of the investigation from a protective order. The files include a confidential 20-page report prepared by the police bureau's training division in fall 2007, which finds two major faults with the officers' conduct.

"First of all, it says that [Officer Chris] Humphreys should not have pursued Chasse," says Steenson. "Second, Chasse should not have been taken down to the ground."

Senior Deputy City Attorney David Woboril says the protective order is standard practice, and that "nothing important to the case was withheld on our side."

Still, Saltzman's office says he felt hamstrung by the protective order. "He wanted to explain to the public why the investigation took three years," says Saltzman's chief of staff, Brendan Finn.

After voting on the landmark settlement, city council reviewed the independent report on the city's handling of the Chasse case. The city auditor's office commissioned the report in January from OIR Group of Los Angeles. The final copy makes two dozen recommendations for the city.

In a bit of backslapping, the report applauds City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade for initiating the outside review before civil litigation was complete. However, it criticizes the police internal affairs division for not completing its investigation of Chasse's death until 22 months after he died.

Police Chief Mike Reese says he agrees with most of the proposed police bureau reforms, and is working to implement them. Asked whether the settlement and audit bring closure to the case, he replied only, "I'm very sad. That incident was very sad."

Download the full OIR report here (PDF).

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