Blue Hours and Alien Boys

When it comes to the mentally ill, nobody is singing, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.

No, when it comes to crazy people on the street, whether or not they’re our brothers, we don’t want to carry them. We call the cops.

In Portland, police have been accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of using excessive force against people with mental illness. As part of an agreement with the justice department, the city is working on police reform.

So far, police reform in Portland has produced two new acronyms: COAB and COCL.

COAB is a 20-member citizens group called the Community Oversight Advisory Board. Fifteen voting members include several people who have specific expertise with the mentally ill – an ER tech, ER doctor, a clinical psychologist, a medical director. Other members represent what has become known as “protected classes” – disabled, gay, black, mentally ill, transgender.

Five Portland Police employees also serve on COAB but don’t have voting rights. Five other members are alternates, and they include a former military police officer, a black community organizer/artist and Tom Steenson, an attorney who has specialized in suing police for misconduct.

COCL stands for Compliance Officer Community Liaison. It is a group from Chicago comprised mostly of academicians. From the get-go there was tension between COAB and COCL, with some members of the Portland group calling the Chicago group “white men (who) come in and get a million dollar contract.” (One member of COCL is a woman).

After attending one COAB meeting last month and a private screening this week of “Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse” for people interested in police reform, significant change seems unlikely.

“I don’t want to put my lips on his lips,” says one of the officers when he finds Chasse is unconscious.

Probably many of us, including members of COAB and COCL, wouldn’t want to put our lips to Chasse’s lips either.

The 42-year-old Portland man died after police tackled him, broke his ribs and Tasered him. The Mental Health Association of Portland produced “Alien Boy,” a couple of years ago to draw attention to police misconduct. With police reform under way, the organization held special screenings of “Alien Boy” as well as “Arresting Power: Resisting Police Violence in Portland, Oregon.”

Chasse’s death received much publicity, in part because it was unusual and occurred in view of guests and employees at Bluehour (“Portland’s most exciting restaurant” – Gourmet).

Steenson, the attorney who’s on COAB, sued the city of Portland, Multnomah County and American Medical Response on behalf of Chasse’s family. Altogether, in settlements from the three entities, the family received more than $3.1 million.

While one family cleaned up in the courts, what about all the other mentally diseased, delusional and frightened sons and daughters who spend their days on Portland’s streets?

“Alien Boy” does not address that question. It spends most of its time tracing Chasse’s sad demise, while convicting the cops with excerpts from their depositions in the civil suit case.

If the purpose of showing this film is to help COAB and others create effective police reform, it will have little influence. Ganging up on the police is not likely to improve the lives of the chronic mentally ill.

Chasse, diagnosed with schizophrenia, presented no actual danger to anyone. He was one of the ragged men and women who hang out downtown. Raised in Portland with parents and a younger brother, he had a normal childhood, according to his mother, Betty Gerber. He liked music, played in a punk-rock band and enjoyed drawing and writing comics. By his late teens, mental illness began to take over.

Chasse spent some time at Dammasch State Hospital, a mental institution. He was treated with medication and eventually released. Mental health professionals told Gerber that her son was capable of living independently.

She says in “Alien Boy” that one of his favorite places was the Central Library. I’m sure it was. I’ve seen what’s happened to that dignified, civic institution. The beautiful elm trees in front have been turned into ashtrays. The stone benches along the balustrade lining the outside walls are cluttered with detritus. (Check for bodily fluids before you sit down.) Inside on the second floor, the microfiche room is no longer kept dark. Sheriff’s deputies patrol regularly.

According to his mother, two of Chasse’s favorite restaurants were Burgerville and Denny’s. In the last months of his life, though, he was asked to leave those restaurants because he reeked of human waste, and his clothes were torn and filthy.

A few weeks before he died, a case manager visited Chasse’s foul apartment at 10 Northwest Broadway Ave., accompanied by a police officer. The case manager said Chasse had been off his meds for two months. During the encounter, Chasse ran from the apartment. The officer asked the case manager if she wanted him to run after him, and she said no. The officer didn’t.

On the day he died, police patrolling downtown spotted Chasse. He appeared to be urinating. To them, he probably looked alike a drug-addled thief, someone responsible for stolen bikes, car break-ins and assorted crime that the public complains the police don’t do anything about.

When Chasse saw the cops, he looked terrified and ran. They caught him, beat him down until he was bleeding, and Tasered him. A paramedic initially said it was OK to transport Chasse to the jail. Once at the jail, his injuries proved more serious, and officers were told to take him in a patrol car to the hospital. He died on the way.

“Alien Boy” has many talking heads – about a dozen friends and at least three eyewitnesses at Bluehour who watched the takedown. They and Chasse’s friends form a chorus, accusing the cops of not caring and of covering up after they learned he was mentally ill and not criminal.

The cops aren’t the only ones covering up. Had the police let him run off, and had he dashed into Bluehour, would the guests and employees have made him feel at home? If Burgerville and Denny’s didn’t want him, would Bluehour?

When Medical Examiner Karen Gunson did Chasse’s autopsy, she noted he was malnourished and weighed only 145 pounds. Her description of him is one of the most objective and accurate statements in the film: He was “somebody who was not being paid attention to by anyone.”

Where were his friends and family – the ones who are scattered throughout the film talking about “our friend James” and “Jim-Jim”? Where was his brother?

According to Jason Renaud, one of the producers of “Alien Boy” who answered questions after the film, Chasse’s brother did not want to participate in the film.

It isn’t just police that need reforming.

America’s grand plan to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill, beginning with the Community Mental Health Act in the Kennedy Administration, eventually led to the closure of many facilities and left sick men and women roaming the streets. Dammasch State Hospital, where Chasse had stayed when he was younger, closed in 1995.

The drugs that were going to cure mental illness didn’t. Mental health experts in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s were wrong.

By the 90’s, the mentally ill had civil rights attorneys and lobbyists. The ranks of the mentally ill have expanded to include drug addicts, as well as felons looking to try and swing a better deal with juries or prosecutors.

When I offered some of these objections to Renaud after the film, he kept the focus on police. Knowing that I had obtained an invitation to the film through the Clatsop County District Attorney’s Office, Renaud asked me if I knew how many use-of-force cases the Clatsop County D.A. had filed. Then he immediately answered the question himself; the Mental Health Association of Portland had taken a survey.

None, according to Renaud.

Here again is another example of how bias will not help police reform.

I checked with Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, who tracked down the April 14, 2015 e-mail survey the Mental Health Association of Portland had sent him: “Has your office charged a police officer or deputy with a use of force crime in recent memory? If yes, was there a conviction?”

Built into this request is the assumption that each county should have filed use-of-force charges against a cop at some time. It doesn’t take into consideration that police are legally allowed to use force, and it doesn’t take into consideration that police may be charged with other crimes.

As it turned out, Marquis had prosecuted four cops in the last five years – but only one of them on unlawful use of force, and he was acting as a special prosecutor in another county. He obtained convictions on all cases – except the unlawful use of force. The jury sided with the officer and not the teenage girl he was accused of roughing up.

Had the Mental Health Association of Portland asked its survey question in a more open- ended fashion, they would have received a different answer. But it might not have been the answer they were looking for.

Just as Portland police made false assumptions about Chasse being a criminal, police reformers also make false assumptions. When they do, they are also likely to reach the wrong conclusions.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons


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