ATTORNEYS FOR the City of Portland reached a record $1.6 million settlement agreement with the family of James Chasse Jr. on Monday, May 10, over Chasse's death in police custody almost four years ago.
"My deepest apologies on behalf of the city to the Chasse family in the loss of their son and brother," said Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman, announcing the deal at a city hall press conference on Tuesday, May 11. "I know words are of little consolation, but we are truly sorry for your loss."
Chasse, who suffered from schizophrenia, also suffered 26 breaks to 16 ribs during his encounter with Portland police officers. Witnesses said the officers later told onlookers, falsely, that Chasse was a "cocaine dealer" with prior convictions, in order to justify their rough treatment of him.
"I don't think there was any cover-up that was ever shown by anyone in this case," said Deputy City Attorney Jim Rice, when asked about these allegations at the press conference. "Although evidence can be looked at by two different people and they can come to different conclusions."
As well as breaking news of the settlement on Monday evening, the Mercury was the first paper in 2006 to interview Jamie Marquez, an employee at Bluehour restaurant and eyewitness to Chasse's beating, who took a cell phone picture of Chasse lying in the street as police and paramedics stood around his prone body, drinking Starbucks coffee.
According to Marquez, Chasse was hit 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" ["Death in Custody," News, Sept 21, 2006].
Chasse was Tasered repeatedly, screaming "mercy, mercy, mercy," according to other witnesses, before losing consciousness. Onlookers were shocked when the officers took Chasse to jail instead of sending him to the hospital in an ambulance. Chasse later died in a squad car en route to the hospital after a jail nurse refused to admit him ["Terminal Energy," News, July 9, 2009].
As part of the settlement, the city has agreed to lift a gag order on the internal affairs investigation into the incident—an investigation that took three years and ultimately led to just two weeks off for Officer Christopher Humphreys and Sergeant Kyle Nice, the officers most closely involved in Chasse's beating and death.
"James would have wanted the truth to come out by settling the case now," said Chasse's family, in a statement released through their attorney, Tom Steenson, after Saltzman's announcement.
The documents will be made available over the coming weeks, while Humphreys and Nice will remain in the bureau's employment.
Nice is working a desk job until the completion of an investigation into a recent off-duty road rage incident in which he pulled his gun on a man in Beaverton ["Go Ahead and Call the Police," News, April 8]. Meanwhile Humphreys has returned from stress leave after his suspension for shooting a 12-year-old girl in the leg with a beanbag shotgun last November ["A Line in the Sand," News, Nov 26, 2009].
"The resolution of the Chasse case brings to a close a very troubling chapter in the relationship between the Portland Police Bureau and the residents of this great city," wrote Mayor Sam Adams in a prepared statement, adding that the city needs to be "more proactive" in improving the police bureau.
Police Chief Rosie Sizer responded with a more defensive statement of her own.
"I believe that the Portland Police Bureau and the individual officers have been unfairly demonized," she wrote. "James Chasse's death was an accident, a terrible, tragic accident."
She also disputed the description of Chasse's death as a "beating death," saying "the independent witnesses do not describe a rain of blows by Portland police officers."
The city has never paid out this much over an in-custody death before. The nearest amount was in 1986, when the city paid $625,287 to the family of Lloyd "Tony" Stevenson following his death in 1985 by carotid artery hold—prompting citizen outrage when officers made T-shirts that said, "Don't Choke 'Em, Smoke 'Em."
Humphreys' suspension last November also prompted the police union to march on city hall wearing T-shirts of their own, reading "I Am Chris Humphreys." In response, Portland artist Marc Moscato has since been selling T-shirts in the same style that read: "I Am James Chasse."
One million dollars of the settlement will come from the city's insurance fund, while $600,000 will come from the city's secondary insurance carrier, according to Saltzman. This includes Steenson's attorney fees, although Rice said the city has also spent $250,000 on defending the case so far.
Multnomah County settled its portion of the case for $925,000 last summer, while American Medical Response, the ambulance company, settled its portion for around $600,000 in December, bringing the total legal cost of the Chasse incident to well over $3 million.
Ironically enough, Mayor Adams and Chief Sizer were embroiled in a dispute over the police bureau's finances on Monday, May 10, after Adams asked her to cut an extra $3.5 million in the spring budget cycle.
BREAKING UPDATE, 5/12/10: Mayor Sam Adams fired Police Chief Rosie Sizer and took back control of the police bureau from Dan Saltzman the morning after this article went to press. Read more here.