By Joanne Zuhl
Tom Steenson doesn’t count too many police officers among his close friends. In fact, he has to think back to his late grandfather, who was one of two deputies for Clackamas County back in the 1930s and 1940s, to even get close. But his relationship with the Portland Police Bureau spans more than three decades, dating back to his days as a newly minted law school grad when he filed his first suit against the bureau. Since then, he has established himself as the state’s premier litigator in police misconduct cases. By some estimates he averaged about five lawsuits against the city per year. In some years, it could spike to a dozen or more, he says.
But that all changed when he took on the case of James Chasse Jr. That case, more than all that came before, was a personal and professional watershed for Steenson, who represented the Chasse family and helped secure a record $1.6 million settlement from the city for the wrongful death of their son. On Sept. 17, 2006, Chasse was chased, tackled, Tasered and beaten by police under suspicion that he was urinating in public. He was denied medical care on the scene and taken to the jail, which refused to accept him in his condition. He died en route to the hospital, the cause of death being “blunt force trauma,” according to the medical examiner.
The real cause, according to Steenson and fellow Chasse attorney Tom Schneiger, was the cover-up that began moments after Chasse was tackled. Outraged at the lack of discipline to come from the case, Steenson and Schneiger, on Oct. 18, released more documents about the case — a condition made as part of the settlement. According to the attorneys, the documents indicate the officers went to work immediately to cover their actions by withholding critical information, making false statements to witnesses and even crafting a scenario that painted Chasse as a drug user, a repeat offender and a transient, none of which was true.
With the Chasse settlement concluded, Steenson has taken on a new case, representing the family of Aaron Campbell. Campbell was shot by police in January after a family member made a distress call saying he was armed and suicidal. Campbell was reportedly distraught over the death of his brother earlier that day. He was shot in the back by police. He was unarmed. It is a case eerily similar to the death of Raymond Gwerder, whose family Steenson represented in 2007, securing at the time a record $500,000 settlement from the city for the wrongful death of their son.
In October, Steenson was awarded the Arthur H. Bryant Public Justice Award by the Oregon State Bar, recognizing his three decades in civil rights advocacy.