IN A CASE WITH striking similarities to the death of James Chasse Jr. in 2006, a man arrested by Portland police—after an intense chase early Sunday, July 10—fell gravely ill in custody, after complaining he was short of breath, and later died at a hospital.
But unlike the 2006 death, which came after officers beat Chasse and then failed to call paramedics, an autopsy of 26-year-old Portlander Darris Eugene Johnson turned up no signs of trauma, the state medical examiner's office said Monday, July 11.
Instead, the autopsy found Johnson had a "significantly" enlarged heart—a potentially fatal condition that often goes undetected. Earlier, police pointed to preliminary tests showing meth and marijuana in Johnson's system. An official cause of death is awaiting blood tests, but investigators are looking into how Johnson spent the day before his death, with a focus on drug use.
Already, though, some watchdogs are raising questions about the handling of Johnson's medical complaints—wondering why paramedics weren't called sooner—even as police insist they did everything right. Johnson's death is the second unwelcome headline to rock the bureau in the past month, coming days after an officer mistakenly injured a man with a beanbag shotgun loaded with live rounds.
"He's not a small guy," said police spokesman Sergeant Pete Simpson. "And when you run from the police and hide, it's not unusual at all to be short of breath or out of breath. The officers said he appeared to be talking normally and breathing normally."
Just after 4 am, near SE 122nd and Bush, police pulled over the 1988 Cadillac Johnson was riding in, reportedly for a busted taillight. Officers claim Johnson wasn't wearing his seatbelt and asked for his ID. He allegedly gave officers a false name and then, possibly because he had an outstanding warrant, bolted from the car. He was found behind a nearby house, after jumping three fences, police said, and turned himself in peacefully.
It was about then that he told the cops who arrested him, Zach Zelinka and Justin Thurman, that he was having breathing problems. But because the officers figured Johnson's complaint was routine, they didn't call for paramedics and drove him to be booked instead.
In the car, officers saw that Johnson was feeling worse—although Simpson said late Monday, July 11, he didn't yet know why they thought that—and then called for paramedics, personally administering CPR to Johnson while they waited. Johnson was declared dead at Adventist Medical Center, just half a mile away from where he fell ill, two hours after he arrived.
"They had him in handcuffs already," says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch. "Give him the benefit of the doubt and bring in the medics."
Handelman also was troubled by what he called the "pretext" of the seat-belt violation, noting Johnon's race—never mind that Johnson was wanted on a warrant.
"The short story is a man failing to wear a seat belt winds up dead in police custody."
Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland, an advocate who has championed Chasse's case, agreed it's fair to consider whether police should have reacted more urgently to Johnson's distress.
He also said that even though officers followed policy once Johnson fell ill in the car—stopping immediately to call for help, a change directly related to Chasse's death—the policy may have created a different problem, considering how close the cops were to Adventist.
"It takes them 30 seconds to drive him over," said Renaud.
As of press time, it wasn't clear whether a grand jury will investigate Johnson's death. Simpson said "it appears that everyone did everything right," but that "people can see it another way."