Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse is a documentary, available on Amazon Prime, about a man with schizophrenia who was killed by police in Portland, Oregon. This film was funded by The Mental Health Association of Portland and over 1500 individual supporters, which I thought was pretty impressive. It’s an extremely disturbing example of policy brutality against a man who had done nothing wrong except be mentally ill.
This wasn’t just an isolated incidence of brutality by two officers who had previously been named in police brutality lawsuits, but rather an indication of much broader problems with the use of force and police attitudes in general when it comes to people with mental illness.
James, or Jim Jim as he was known by family and close friends, began having psychotic symptoms in his mid to late teens. He lived in a series of group homes in her early adulthood, but got stabilized on medications and was able to live independently. He was a regular at the public library, and he enjoyed drawing comic books.
In the couple of months leading up to his death, he had stopped taking his medications. His mental state deteriorated, and his hygiene and self-care were very poor. He had lost a significant amount of weight.
Police brutality in action
On the day of his death, police approached James in a public area. They noticed that he was stiff-legged and rocking side to side. One of the officers later said that he was “hunched over, and his hands are towards his waistband like somebody either urinating or just starting to finish and do the shake”. When addressed he looked at the police with “sheer terror” in his eyes and the cops suspected he was going to run. James had good reason to want to run; he had been beaten up by police in the past.
He did run, and the police gave chase, with one of the officers tackling him. The officer (250ish pounds) later said in an inquiry that he pushed James down but denied that he landed on top of him. Witnesses commented that “it literally looked like 2 people shaking out a rug”, with knees to his chest, punched in the face, and kicked. He was then tasered and he passed out, lying in a pool of his own blood.
Alien Boy shows photos taken by witnesses in which James is on the ground, handcuffed and with leg restraints. Fire and ambulance personnel were standing around with police, two of whom were holding cups of coffee. Meanwhile, the police were heard by witnesses making false statements about James having drugs.
To hospital or to jail?
Paramedics were not informed of the force used or the tasering. They found his vital signs were normal, so they left it up to the police to decide if he should be transported to hospital or taken to jail. They chose to take him to jail. As the paramedics were packing up to go, James cried “don’t leave me, don’t leave me” according to witnesses, although the police denied this in the inquiry.
Video from the jail shows the cops carrying him in, arms and legs restrained, like you might carry a duffel bag, with a spit hood over his head. Once they had him in a cell he stopped breathing and started seizuring. They called the jail nurse but didn’t take the spit hood off.
When she showed up, she decided that she couldn’t take responsibility for him, so the cops decided to drive him to the hospital, which was 15-20 minutes away, still restrained and with the spit hood on. They stopped to talk to a sergeant on the way out, and did not have lights and sirens on for the drive to the hospital. Along the way, James died.
The state medical examiner found that the cause of death was blunt force chest trauma. He had 26 breaks to 16 ribs, including in areas that aren’t necessarily that easy to get at. She suspected he likely would have survived had paramedics transported him to hospital rather than police taking him to jail. The toxicology report showed no drugs of any kind, including medications.
A grand jury review of the in-custody death resulted in no criminal charges. After an internal review by the police bureau, the city requested a Department of Justice investigation into bias in how the local police dealt with mental illness. That investigation concluded that the Portland police did use force excessively, including tasers, and this force was often used in dealing with minor offenses committed by people with mental illness.
Oh, and the officer who tackled James? He later ran for county sheriff and was elected.
Alien Boy is a call for change
Police have a hard job to do. But this kind of thing should never happen. I can understand that on the rare occasion someone who’s highly psychotic and brandishing a weapon may not be able to be safely contained without considerable force. I can accept that. But James Chasse? He did absolutely nothing except be mentally ill. I suspect that an animal would have gotten better treatment than did Mr. Chasse, a man who was ill and needed to go to hospital.
I think prosecutors and governments need to really reflect on how they make decisions about pursuing prosecution when it comes to in-custody deaths, particularly when it comes to marginalized communities, like people with mental illness, like racial minorities. The police should be there to protect the most vulnerable, not to take their lives. Change can’t happen soon enough, and I’m glad that projects like Alien Boy are bringing some of these stories to light.
You may also be interested in the post Defunding the Police: What It Could Mean for Mental Illness.
You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.