On a pleasant Autumn afternoon in the Pearl District of Portland in 2006 a man named James Chasse attracted the attention of a Portland Transit Police officer and a Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputy. The two later claimed they thought Chasse was urinating in public. Chasse, suffering from a “fear of cops” brought on by paranoid schizophrenia, began to flee. Christopher Humphries of the Transit Police caught up with him. Chasse landed on the ground. Three hours later Chasse was dead. Blunt force trauma to the chest was the official cause of death. Sixteen of his ribs were broken.
Though his family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in the federal courts against the City of Portland, Multnomah County and the ambulance company American Medical Response, the death of James Chasse never went to trial.
At least until Friday night, 13 blocks from where Chasse was first subdued, at Cinema 21. ALIEN BOY: The Life and Death of James Chasse had its premiere as part of the Portland International Film Festival. This thorough yet flawed documentary is as close as we’ll ever get to court proceedings.
It took several years, but the Chasse family eventually settled out of court. Portland paid roughly $1.6 million, the county $925,000 and AMR a reported $600,000. In addition to that, at the insistence of attorneys, voluminous internal records were released. These have been amply reported and provide the basis for the narrative of ALIEN BOY.
Filmmaker Brian Lindstrom of Portland has been working on his documentary for six years since the death of Chasse. It’s a tragedy in three acts. There’s Act One, which shows us a Portland everyboy who starts to lose touch with reality “when his illness took over”, as one friend puts it. That happened when he was 15. He wanders through the local punk rock scene of the late seventies and draws increasingly dazed and confused cartoons, some of which he likes to leave on the reading tables at the main branch of the Multnomah County Library. At one point, the film claims, he jumped off the Broadway Bridge.
Act Two takes us back to that day in October 2006 through the edited testimony of a handful of witnesses, including Jamie Marquez, bartender from the nearby Blue Hour restaurant. He ran out with a camera to take the oft-viewed photo of police, firefighters and ambulance crews standing over the badly-bruised body of James Chasse drinking Starbucks coffee.
Act Three is the cover-up put forward by attorney Tom Steenson as the real cause of his Chasse’s death. Video depositions of the three officers involved (Portland Police Sergeant Kyle Nice as well as Humphries and Deputy Bret Burton) expose a calculated (and perhaps coached) indifference by the three that is chilling.
Because this three-act structure supports the premise that a grave injustice has been done, it’s unlikely anyone at Cinema 21 for the premiere of ALIEN BOY arrived unconvinced. True, there’s unseen jailhouse video that shows Chasse getting very rough treatment while he was dying and those deposition moments, but beyond that there’s not a lot that’s new here.
To anyone who follows the news around here, it’s a familiar, if disturbing, story. Someone dies at the hands of police. Supporters of the deceased declare their outrage. An investigation is promised, launched and completed. Reforms are proposed. Officers are sanctioned. An arbitrator overturns the sanctions.
The untold story remains why the federal wrongful death lawsuit was settled out of court on the eve of a trial that might have better illuminated the issues of the mentally fragile among us. Steenson, the attorney, briefly mentions how clients in police brutality cases are often disappointed because they naively assume that if brutality is proven, a price will be paid.
The most emotional and touching moments of ALIEN BOY come from the mother of James Chasse. She recalls, as only a mother might, the “troubled life and horrible death” of her son from the time he was a “colicky baby”. She wonders why he never got to enjoy some of the things we take for granted: marrying, having children, driving a car, going to college and even having credit cards.
It’s not very satisfying, but the answer is his mental illness. Her son might not have died that day if he’d been on his meds, if he’d been institutionalized, if cops better prepared for the situation had responded, if someone in charge had insisted he be taken to a hospital rather than to jail.
The filmmaker Lindstrom sounded almost wistful as he said during the introduction of ALIEN BOY, “Maybe we can do better”.
ALIEN BOY: The Life And Death Of James Chasse will be playing at Cinema 21 February 27 through March 4.