City attorneys say Chasse film could stoke hostility against police officers
“Alien Boy,” a local documentary about a schizophrenic man who died in police custody in 2006 has been dragged into a legal tug-of-war between the victim’s family and the city of Portland.
Portland filmmaker Brian Lindstrom has only just begun shooting the project, which focuses on the life and death of James Chasse Jr., a 42-year-old Old Town resident who succumbed to blunt-force trauma after being tackled and tazered by police officers outside the upscale Pearl District restaurant Bluehour.
But city attorneys say the film, together with continued media scrutiny into the episode, could stoke hostility toward the officers involved and make it impossible for them to get a fair trial in the civil wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Chasse family in U.S. District Court.
At stake is a gag order imposed in October by Judge Dennis Hubel, who sealed key documents in the case, including an internal police bureau investigation; Independent Police Review records; records of previous disciplinary action against the officers; cell phone records; and medical records.
Lawyers for the Chasse family and the news media (including the Portland Tribune) have asked the judge to release those documents; lawyers representing the city have tried to keep them under wraps.
As long as the order remains in place, it remains unclear what information the documents contain. But city lawyers now argue that the documents could turn public opinion against the officers, even if they are ultimately withheld from a jury.
“Releasing irrelevant information, which is inadmissible at trial, could prejudice defendants by resulting in hostility towards them,” wrote Deputy City Attorneys James G Rice and David A Landrum in a May 6 court brief. “City defendants’ concern about potential hostility due to dissemination of irrelevant discovery material is exacerbated by the media scrutiny of Mr. Chasse’s death, including the documentary film, ‘Alien Boy,’ being made about Mr. Chasse.”
The brief was filed in response to a motion by Tom Steenson, the Chasse family’s lawyer, requesting that the documents be unsealed. Steenson had no comment about the motion, the lawsuit or the film.
Deadly encounter in the Pearl District
The deadly encounter took place on Sept. 17, 2006, when Portland police officers saw Chasse walking down Northwest Everett Street near the I-405 overpass. According to published accounts, the officers believed Chasse was “acting odd” and suspected him of urinating against a tree. They followed him for several blocks, catching up with him near the intersection of Northwest 13th Avenue, where they ordered him to halt. Instead, Chasse attempted to run away, prompting Officer Christopher Humphreys to knock him to the ground.
In the ensuing melee, Chasse was tackled, tazered, punched, kicked and hogtied as he struggled desperately against Humphreys, police Sgt. Kyle Nice and Multnomah County sheriff’s Deputy Brett Burton.
The altercation occurred near Bluehour, where several patrons dining al fresco — including developer Homer Williams — witnessed the struggle.
Chasse died in the back seat of a police cruiser of the injuries sustained in the encounter, which included a punctured lung, 16 broken ribs and multiple contusions.
The Multnomah County medical examiner ruled that Chasse died of blunt-force trauma to the chest, but declared the death “accidental.” A grand jury later cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing.
The family, however, believes Chasse was beaten to death.
Documentary dragged into hall of mirrors
The Chasse case has become a flashpoint in the ongoing debate about police brutality and the larger issue of how police officers should approach people with mental illness, who sometimes react in unexpected ways, and whose symptoms may mislead officers into thinking they are drunk or high.
Chasse, who was also known as “Jim-Jim,” was a well-known figure in the Portland music scene who lived independently in an Old Town apartment building, and had no criminal history.
It was with the aim of rendering a more complete, three-dimensional portrait of Chasse, that director Brian Lindstrom embarked on “Alien Boy.” His last film, “Finding Normal,” a documentary about recovering addicts in Portland, won wide praise for its sensitive approach and has been screened in City Hall.
Other contributors to “Alien Boy” include reporter Matt Davis of the Portland Mercury, who broke crucial elements of the story; and advocate Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland, who knew Chasse in high school.
The film’s title comes from a song written about Chasse in 1979 by his friend, Greg Sage, lead singer of the seminal Portland punk band, the Wipers.
Keeping documents from the public
Initially, filmmakers simply wanted to shoot a film about the tragedy. But now the project in being dragged into the legal battle.
“We’re disappointed, but not surprised,” says Renaud. “The city is trying to use the film as a rationale to keep these documents from the public.”
Renaud agreed that the film’s viewers might walk away from the theater believing that the officers involved in the incident were responsible for Chasse’s death. But, he said, the vast majority of potential jurors were unlikely ever to see the film; and those who were swayed by it would be excluded from the jury pool by the city’s lawyers.
No date has been set for arguments on whether the documents should be released.