As parents of a 7- and an 8-year-old, my wife Cheryl Strayed and I often discuss what we hope to impart to our children.
At the top of that list is resilience, which I define not only as the ability to persevere despite obstacles but also as the capacity to extend some key element of your essential being beyond the vicissitudes and surfaces of day-to-day life.
James Chasse was resilient, and the opportunity to share that and other of his defining characteristics with a large audience was one of the main reasons for making the documentary “Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse.”
Many of you know Chasse’s name through the headline “Man with schizophrenia dies in police custody.” Perhaps you followed the story through the grand jury and civil lawsuit phases, and perhaps you wondered how he received 26 fractures to 16 ribs.
The first task of the film was to delve into James’ life, adding necessary dimension, depth and nuance to a person that — through no fault of his own — was now being defined by how he died. In making “Alien Boy,” I wanted to define James by how he lived.
One of the brightest parts of James’ life was his participation in Portland’s early punk music scene. Embraced by fellow outsiders and artists, he flourished, publishing his fanzine The Oregon Organizm, writing and recording songs as lead singer of The Combos, and playing muse to Greg Sage of the Wipers and Kim Kincaid of the Neo Boys, inspiring the songs “Alien Boy” and “Nothing to Fear.”
How many of us can say one song was written about us? James had two.
A measured account
The onset of schizophrenia made it nearly impossible for James to maintain those relationships, though he valiantly tried, writing a heartbreakingly brave note to an old friend from his punk days, “I thought I’d try to explain who I am….”
As so often happens with people suffering from severe and persistent mental illness, his behavior put people off and his interactions became confined to family members, mental health professionals and the rare person willing to endure the discomfort of reaching across the chasm of schizophrenia. One such brave, kind soul was Russell Sacco, a retired physician who attended the same church as James.
“He’s just a person and I’m just a person, so I went up and talked to him,” Dr. Sacco explains.
After weeks of no response, one day James replied “hello” to Dr. Sacco and a dialogue began. If only the police officers had approached James in a similar spirit that fateful day — or, absent that, ignored him altogether and not have initiated a foot pursuit that the Portland Police Bureau’s Training Division would later rule should never have happened.
The other task of the film was to take a clear-eyed, calm, measured account of how and why James Chasse died. Using eyewitness accounts, audiotape of the police investigation, police evidence photos, official court documents, footage from jail surveillance cameras, interviews of Medical Examiner Dr. Karen Gunson, recent Portland Mayor Sam Adams, then-Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler, journalists Matt Davis and Anna Griffin, attorney Tom Steenson and James’ mother and father, and videotaped depositions from Officer Christopher Humphreys, Sgt. Kyle Nice and Deputy Bret Burton, the film presents a relentless, enraging cascade of actions, decisions, omissions and lies on the part of police that led to James Chasse’s death.
Then-Mayor Tom Potter and then-Police Chief Rosie Sizer attempted to divert attention from the actions of Humphreys, Nice and Burton by framing what happened to James Chasse as a failure of the mental health system.
Nothing could be further from the truth. James was a success story, living independently and managing things well. He went off his meds, which is part of the disease of mental illness, but his case manager was aware of this and asked Project Respond to do a welfare visit accompanied by a police officer.
The welfare visit revealed that James was in a bad way, and Project Respond’s Ela Howard asked Officer Worthington to file a report flagging James as mentally ill so that if the police ever encountered him again, they would know to call Project Respond rather than try to deal with James by themselves.
Officer Worthington didn’t file the report. This was on Sept. 15, 2006, two days before James died. The mental health system is not to blame for James’s tragic death.
Last Friday evening, at the Northwest Children’s Theater on Northwest 18th and Everett, a mere 100 feet from where Officer Humphreys first encountered James, we had a party after “Alien Boy” premiered at Cinema 21 as part of the Portland International Film Festival.
I had the privilege of introducing Mayor Charlie Hales to James Chasse Sr. What followed was an open conversation between a still grieving father and a new mayor about what steps the city can take to guard against this kind of tragedy happening again.
I’m in Missoula, Mont., where the film just played in the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. The audience was enraged — may that rage fuel positive change.
But rage will only get us so far. Let Russell Sacco’s simple, wise words guide us: “He’s just a person, and I’m just a person….”
In that vein, we have to ask about the toll all this has taken on the officers involved. Have they received the necessary mental health help such a traumatic experience requires? How has this experience changed them? What have they learned? Are they still capable of doing their jobs? Do we, the public, still have confidence in them?
Portland resident Brian Lindstrom’s third feature-length documentary, “Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse,” will play Sunday through March 7 at Cinema 21 in Portland.