Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse

| March 25, 2014

I am no fan of police officers.  This is based on my limited encounters and with the wide array of anecdotes and news stories revolving around the despicable abuse of power and institutional cover up that routinely occurs within various law enforcement agencies.  But even though I could pull out endless tales of police corruption from the headlines, it’s just as possible there are more tales of cops enacting justice and upholding law that go unreported.  On most occasions, cops probably experience fairly mundane workdays (by police standards), with neither good nor bad incidents.  But I read a lot of Radly Balko, and I’m of the opinion it’s not a case of a few bad apples ruining the barrel; the whole tree is rotten, and every once in a while you come across something edible.

To reinforce my point, we have Portland police officers Christopher Humphreys, Kyle Nice and Bret Barton.  These men are scumbags.  If there were a prototype for the type of power hungry individual who becomes a police officer simply to rule over us lesser mortals, each one of these men would fit the bill.  They are the epitome of authoritarian thugs, most likely pushed around too much in high school – possibly even bullies themselves – and with their newfound status as kings of the street are able to push back.  What more can you say about people who brag about having the highest number of brutality complaints?

One of their many victims was James Philip Chasse, Jr.  Here are the facts: on September 17, 2006, James was spotted urinating in public, unkempt and wild in appearance; when confronted, he fled.  Officers gave chase, and 280 lb. Officer Humphreys tackled James.  When EMS crews they not given a full injury report from police, and despite James’s pleas allowed him to be taken to jail.  The prison nurses refused to admit him, sensing James’s injuries were greater than the officers let on.  James was transported by squad car to a hospital twenty minutes away, where he died of injuries he sustained in custody.

Brian Lindstrom’s new documentary Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse focuses more on his death than life.  For the first thirty minutes, the director provides all the information we need to get to know the man: interviews from his parents, friends, fellow artists, musical collaborators, and good Samaritans.  For the first fifteen years, James was your average young artist, interested mainly in music and comic books.  Soon enough, James is diagnosed with schizophrenia, but doctors determine he has a high probability for reintegration with society, as long as he stays on his medication.  Given the likelihood of paranoia in those suffering with schizophrenia, this is a nearly Sisyphean feat without proper management.  Sure enough, James is living in a halfway house, stops bathing and eating, and disappears one day before his death.

Lindstrom approaches James’s death and the ensuing debate with the appropriate level of outrage.  After all, was it necessary for the Internal Affairs report to take four years?  Why were recommendations of policy changes in how police officers deal with suspects never implemented?  Why were the officers never even remotely disciplined, despite numerous individual complaints of police brutality, including one incident caught on tape of Humphreys violently subduing an adolescent?  Politicians were originally no help, dismissing all disciplinary action once the Portland Police Union began protesting.  Sure, they convened a mental health task force to reevaluate how officer respond to situations involving sick people, but that’s just shifting the blame from individual behavior to a societal issue.  Yes, America does not take mental health seriously, but officers Humphreys, Nice and Barton clearly exhibit a distinct lack of human decency, making James’s mental illness irrelevant.  All they saw was a disheveled transient who could easily be bullied, and their blatant cover-up after the ensuing outcry – reimagining facts, shifting blame, deflecting questions – just goes to show how little they care.  Eventually, even the mayor turns on them, convening a federal task force that finds rampant bias within the Portland police.  Their only defense comes from former Portland Police Union president Scott Westerman, who was fired due to two separate incidents of road rage against the same person.

How much is a human life worth?  Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing remains a firm indictment of the mentality that excuses brutal police tactics against the “wrong type” of people.  It’s easier to dismiss a character’s death because, well, they were jackasses who destroyed personal property.  With James Philip Chasse, didn’t he resist arrest and try to bite the officers?  And what about his urine- and feces-soaked clothes?  Wasn’t he just asking for a negative encounter with the law?  One day before he was killed – the day he disappeared from the halfway house – a police officer was called to assist the landlord in coaxing James out of his room.  He had clearly stopped taking his medication, given up bathing and was defecating on the floor.  Once he learned a police officer was present, James fled in terror.  The landlord asked the officer not to pursue him, but to flag James as a schizophrenic should any other officer come into contact with him.  No flag was ever issued, and the next day he was dead.

I would damn Humphreys, Nice and Barton to an eternity of living with James’s death on their conscience, but based on their taped depositions, they clearly don’t care.  Human life is not valuable to them.  Humphreys even admits, given the same situation and assuming “none of this” would follow, he would react the exact same way.  These officers believe they did the right thing, even though an innocent man was killed.  And if that man was a paranoid schizophrenic with a fear of authority, isn’t the world better off anyway?  Brian Lindstrom doesn’t think so, and that makes his documentary all the more powerful.

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