Alien Boy: The Life and
Death of James Chasse
Runs Fri., March 7–Thurs., March 13 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 90 minutes.
Seen during last fall’s Local Sightings Film Festival, this Portland documentary was my top pick—and the jury-award winner, hence its return engagement. The 2006 death in police custody of homeless schizophrenic James Chasse will inevitably remind viewers of our own SPD shooting of John T. Williams in 2010. It also has echoes in last fall’s fatal stabbing of a Sounders fan in Pioneer Square by Donnell D. Jackson, evidently also a schizophrenic failed by the system.
Is there a culture of aggro cops, both here in Portland, that Mayor Ed Murray and our next police chief need to address? Alien Boy strongly suggests so. In Portland’s trendy Pearl District, the frail 42-year-old Chasse is football-tackled to the pavement by a cop for peeing in public. A dozen ribs are broken, a lung is punctured, Chasse is hogtied and taken to the station, and he soon dies of respiratory arrest. At the time, Chasse was a shy, fearful man living in assisted housing who loved coffee shops and the library. Friends and family tenderly recall an avid music fan during the punk-rock ’80s who published a zine, then succumbed to schizophrenia as a teenager.
Director Brian Lindstrom spent a half-dozen years following public demands for police accountability and the ensuing lawsuit against the city. Depositions and station-house videos are damning, though Lindstrom grants a police-union rep space to respond. Incoming mayor Sam Adams eventually fires the old police chief; but as in Seattle, street-level cops are maddeningly untouchable—they have all the protections and benefits that Chasse was denied in his unhappy life.
Eight years later in a different city, our new mayor can’t seem to get a handle on police discipline. Alien Boy is a film that Ed Murray and his next police chief should be required to be see. It ought to be mandatory viewing for all Seattle cops, veterans and rookies alike. Peeing in public is a nuisance, not a crime. And as this city grows ever richer yet more stratified between Amazon workers and those seeking shelter bunks (or sleeping beneath the viaduct); as taxpayers seem unwilling to fund needed mental-health services for the homeless, our sidewalks will increasingly be shared with the indigent, the mentally ill, and those committing illegal acts both large and small. James Chasse was a sad casualty of that economic conflict, a small, weak man whom the authorities deliberately chose not to protect or serve.