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Scrutiny needed in tragic deaths

Our Opinion

The sad story of 42-year-old James P. Chasse Jr., who died in 2006 after a brutal encounter with police in downtown Portland, and the equally tragic case of 27-year-old Fouad Kaady, a Gresham resident who was killed a year earlier by police in Clackamas County, have more in common than allegations of police brutality.

Both cases prompted public outrage and intense media scrutiny. Both led to multimillion dollar wrongful-death lawsuits. And in neither case has the public received a satisfactory investigation and explanation for what appeared to be unnecessary use of force.

The Chasse and Kaady cases reappeared in the news last week when two public agencies agreed to settle lawsuits out of court. For Chasse's family, it was Multnomah County that decided to pay $925,000 rather than defend its portion of a suit that will continue against the city of Portland and other defendants. Kaady's family received a settlement of $1 million from the city of Sandy only and will continue to pursue a broader lawsuit against Clackamas County and one of its sheriff's deputies.

While we are not overjoyed at the prospect of expending additional public resources defending against lawsuits, in these two cases, we hope the remaining suits press forward.

Four years have passed since the unarmed, naked and badly burned Kaady was shot. Three years have gone by since the mentally ill Chasse, who had committed no real crime, suffered the blunt-force trauma, dozens of rib fractures and subsequent neglect that preceded his death. But in these cases, citizens still lack the information they need to assess the performance of police and other public officials.

Those details will never be disclosed and full accountability will never be exacted, however, if all the lawsuits eventually are settled out of court. Public agencies benefit when they keep cases from going to trial. All too often, it is cheaper - especially when the cost is paid by insurance companies - to settle a case, even for large sums of money, than it is to defend it.

But another side-effect of out-of-court settlements is that they blur accountability. If a case never goes to trial, public officials avoid the embarrassment of having to explain what happened. They can evade questions while a lawsuit is pending, then stay completely mum once it is settled.

Shine light where it's needed

That's why a full-blown trial in either of these cases would be illuminating. But the public shouldn't have to depend solely on a civil trial to find out whether the people it employs and calls upon in emergencies have acted appropriately. In both of these cases, the families of the men and other concerned groups have called for public inquests - a legal inquiry and full public airing of the circumstances of the deaths.

We agree such inquests are needed. Following the Chasse and Kaady cases, grand juries declined to indict the police officers who were present - which is usually what happens when grand juries look into officer-involved deaths.

And these two cases aren't the only local examples of possible overreactions from police that resulted in deaths. Also in 2006, Washington County deputies killed 18-year-old Lukus Glenn, a former Tigard High School soccer and football star who was wielding a pocket knife. That case didn't even get referred to a grand jury.

We recognize that these deaths have prompted area police agencies to require better crisis-intervention training for their officers. We hope the training helps save lives in the future - of both officers and citizens. But simply providing training does not fully answer the question of what happened in these cases.

More importantly, it doesn't tell us what procedures, additional training, policies and community mental-health investments must be implemented to help prevent such occurrences in the future.