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Friday, November 24, 2006

Jumping to a (probable) conclusion

Willamette Week has been claiming control over all the "facts" in the killing of James Chasse Jr. by the Portland police on Sep. 17. And it seems awfully quick to reinforce the official view of Chasse's death, as told by the state medical examiner.

This week the Double Dub even went so far as to publish this:

Did police beat James Chasse Jr. to death?

It's not totally clear, but probably not.

And why is that?

None of the interviews with a half-dozen civilian witnesses details a higher level of violence than the three officers involved described in their statements: several punches and kicks and the application of a Taser (which didn't seem to have much effect).

State Medical Examiner Karen Gunson says the massive injuries to Chasse's chest were not consistent with individual punches and kicks. The injuries are consistent with what most witnesses described: one or more officers landing on top of Chasse.

That gets WW to "probably not" as a fact.

The article does not refer explicitly to the witnesses who filed complaints of police brutality immediately after the killing. As reported by Maxine Bernstein of the O on Sep. 21:

The Rev. Randall Stuart, who is directing the season opener at Artists Repertory Theater, was walking with his friend Constance Doolan, an elementary-school music teacher visiting from Oakland, Calif., when they watched the violent encounter...

The man was yelling, "I won't, I won't. I won't get on my stomach," and kept struggling with the officers, the witnesses said.

At some point, they said, the man tried to bite an officer, and an officer repeatedly kicked the man somewhere in the upper midsection of his body and struck him with his hand.

I think repeated kicks to a downed man's rib cage could break his ribs and puncture his lung. And although that may not square with the state medical examiner's conclusions, if I were a journalist writing about this I don't think I'd accept at face value what I read from the medical examiner. That official, who owes her job and her budget to the police, didn't assuage anyone's suspicions of general bias in this case when she branded Chasse's death an "accident."

I don't know all the details of exactly what happened that awful evening. But unlike Wily Week, I can't get to "probably not death by beating," and I don't see how they can.

A civil lawsuit will determine what caused Chasse's death, if the city doesn't settle the case for big bucks first. Until then, one can certainly say that he was killed by excessive force and inexcusable neglect by an officer with a singular history of violence. Beaten or kicked to death? Maybe, maybe not.

Comments (8)

Why didn't Chasse get the medical treatment that might have saved his life?

The follow up question to this one, that Willamette Week fails to ask, is why didn't the police, who were on the Banfield and like three minutes away from the emergency room, take Chasse there? They pull off the highway, instead, into a residential neighborhood, just happen to come across a guy with a defibrilator, and eventually call for an ambulance when they're unsuccessful at resussitating him.

How Chasse got hurt in the first place is one issue. Bt how he dies while in police custody, without getting appropriate and timely medical attention, is, in my opinion, equally important.

In a media world that thrives on 'breaking news', which prematurely supplants the previous break in news, it's encouraging to see the Oregonian, WW, and other local outlets coming back again and again to the Chasse story. And, I'd miss much of it if you, Jack, weren't still tracking and posting on it. Thanks.

Your two WW links and associated criticism perhaps highlight an incidental WW problem with headlining. Both are under the Ian Demsky byline.

The first is more or less a story summary, which would be informative for those not following the story closely, but provocative for those tending to not have a neutral, wait-and-see, we'll-never-really-know attitude.

The second WW/Demsky headline "Fact Check" is misleading and might better have been titled "The reporter's interpretations and opinions" or "Editorial comment by the reporter".

At this point, the Chasse Affair is beginning to remind me of "All the President's Men". The Watergate breakin was one thing, but "Watergate" was something completely different. What its tenacles told us about people and institutions who were peripherally involved, often after the fact, was enormous.

Begging the questions stemming only from Mr. Chasse's day in history, the other story is how government behaved in the following days and even now, the deafening silence of the rank and file police officers, the arrogance of the union, the stonewalling from EMTS, mental health and hospitals in the name of "confidentiality", and so on and so forth.

Smaller stories have led to big books, if one is inclined to "follow the money" and other clues.

I would proffer an alternative reason for the WW's continued coverage of the Chasse case: they resolutely ignored the story for six weeks (because they had nothing new to add), until it got so big they had to run with "catch-up" coverage, which has been, in parts, very strong. In other parts, like this week, it's smacked hard of filling space on the news pages.

I'm not blaming Demsky, he's probably been put up to this by the publishers so they can enter his coverage for an award in "hard-hitting investigative journalism", which WW prides itself on. But who got the photos of the incident first, and ran them prominently from day one? Who dogged the story for weeks before the WW caved and followed suit?

I gotta agree with my hubby on this one.

Those three minutes -- why did they pull off then, minutes from the hospital?

Picture yourself, your wife in screaming pain delivering your first-born in the backseat, your father clutching his chest and moaning in the throes of a heart attack -- you're minutes from the hospital, but instead of blazing your way -- followed by howevermany cops you might pick up along the way -- you pull off the road (conflicted on how to interpret this? Ask your wife... how would she feel is she was in the backseat, needing to get to the hospital?)

...It makes no sense at all, except if you open the door to the notion that they needed to "clean him up" -- take the handcuffs off, before they presented his him to the EMTs they called to come get him, and escort him those last three minutes, finally, to the hospital...

too late

"How Chasse got hurt in the first place is one issue. Bt how he dies while in police custody, without getting appropriate and timely medical attention, is, in my opinion, equally important." I couldn't agree more. It also seems to me that there is a synergy between the initial beating and the indifference after the fact. The conduct of the officer at the scene who lied about the 14 arrests for crack and so forth is also very telling of a thuggish mentality. The bottom line is that they treated a fellow human being like a piece of garbage that could be stomped on an thrown into the garbage while they yawned and scratched their backsides. It makes you wonder how many other people have beat up like this at 3 a.m. in an alley and we didn't hear about because the people didn't die on a busy street during daylight on a pleasant summer eve.

I also agree with Matt Davis' post. The Willy Week got scooped on this entire story out of the gate beginning with the Mercury reporters photographs and the O's first report of the actual witness accounts to police. WW is just repeating what we already know. It's sort of as if they are saying "So what we really didn't care about that stupid story anyway."

You get the picture when you read that Thumper Humphreys was so busy scraping up a white powder off the sidewalk, hoping against hope that it was some drug that he could pin on Chasse, that he didn't notice that he had seriously injured the guy.

But speaking of pictures, his trip to Starbucks while the man lay on the sidewalk, bleeding from the mouth... I'm sorry, that officer needs a desk job.

The impact of this incident on "community policing" goals is noticeable. The other night at the ballgame a couple of officers stopped to chat with my kids. You can bet I was checking their name tags to see who they were. If it had been Humphreys or Nice or Kaer (who gratuitously shot a man to death recently), the conversation would have been very brief.

And where's Potter? Hiding. Hiding, it is said, his own past. If he can't or won't bust some tail for stuff like this, there's no hope for the bureau. It's really sad. He could have made a real mark in history with this case -- he probably still could -- but it's clear that he won't.

The Medical Examiner K. Gunson quoted by the WW is an employee of the State Police, and such is not an entirely disinterested or objective person in this case.

Among her responsibilities is to conduct a public inquest if there are any reasons to suspect criminal culpability. There was plenty of evidence to suggest criminality here, still Gunson did not feel it necessary to conduct it.

I seriously doubt that the nature of rib cage damage is sufficient for anybody to determine whether it was due to repeated beating/kicking or a heavy object falling on it.The city needs to hire an independent examiner, police personnel pronouncing on criminality in death-in-custody cases is not a particularly sensible arrangement.

The issue whether we have here a criminally negligent manslaughter is still very much open despite WW’s assurances to the contrary.


We have two formal adjudications, one by Shrunk another one by Gunson, both of which by people who cannot be trusted for various reasons (historical in the case of DA Schrunk) and the fact of her being employed by the police in the case of Gunson.

The city needs to think outside the old box, few people have much faith in the integrity of the present system. For good reasons. Portland police kills people at outrageous rates, 200 times higher than in Great Britain.

Ya the WW story is disappointing, citing opinions formed from selected facts. Do you have high expectations? Where's your justice system now, huh? We're in the high court of public opinion - and everyone has one.

Or, you can figure for for yourself what happened. All the witness testimony - cops, jailers, fireman, EMTs (who refused to cooperate), case workers, and street corner citizens, all evidence collected by police and presented to the grand jury is online at Mental Health Assocation of Portland

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