Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse
Alien Boy is a non-preachy 2013 document which shines light onto the James Chasse police custody death.
The documentary is full of interviews, deposition videos, document reviews, and asks some hard question. The documentary does not draw a conclusion, rather it lets the watcher decide what to believe.
Chasse was a severely mentally ill person who, by the mental professionals, was a ‘good example case’ for community care. After years of work and training, he was living independently and doing fair. Unfortunately he stopped taking his medications; which is a part of the disease (schizophrenia), and didn’t take care of himself. He appeared unkempt and homeless. Just days before his death, one of his mental health workers tried to visit Chasse at his apartment (with a Portland Police officer), but Chasse ran when he saw the police. He was mortally afraid of police; based on his mental illness and his prior police contact.
The mental health worker asked the responding officer (Officer Worthington) to “flag” Chasse as severely mental ill. The hope was to notify other police officers that Chasse would not respond positively to police contact when he was off his medications. The case worker asked any police who encounter Chasse to contact a case worker 24/7. The worker asked Officer Worthington to make a report of Chasse running from the contact. The officer declined to write a report and declined to “flag” Chasse.
The fatal meeting with Portland Police began relatively innocuously. A Portland Police officer (Chris Humphreys) thought he saw Chasse urinating outside in the bushes. Chasse ran when the police tried to contact him. The officer chased and tackled Chasse. The physical evidence and eyewitnesses show a full body football style tackle. The Multnomah County jail video recorded Officer Humphreys describing the tackle as a football tackle. Officer Humphreys weighs about 240 pounds, Chasse weighed 145 pounds. Officer Humphreys told a different story under oath at the deposition.
Chasse was hit, kicked, Taser-ed, and struck numerous times by the responding police officers. He lost consciousness and on-lookers thought he was dead. Chasse was handcuffed and ‘checked out’ by a responding ambulance team. The EMTs were not told about the kicks, hits, strikes, use of Taser, or the loss of consciousness. A sergeant (Portland Police Sergeant Nice) advised that “Chasse was going to jail, if he checked out medically”.
The EMTs said Chasse’s blood pressure was in the normal range. Sergeant Nice ordered Officer Humphreys to sign the medical release. Humphreys transported Chasse to the jail, where the jail nurse declined to admit Chasse, due to his poor condition. Humphreys decided to transport Chasse to the hospital (instead of calling for an ambulance)—Chasse was dead when he arrived at the hospital emergency room.
There were allegations that Chasse was on drugs, was a drug dealer, and had rock cocaine on his person. None of the allegations were true. Chasse had not been urinating in the bushes.
Based on the information provided to the Grand Jury, there were no criminal charges.
The Portland Police Bureau conducted an internal investigation from October 2006 – October 2009. The result of the internal investigation was released to the public in October 2010. The death occurred in September 2006. The internal investigation only found fault in an officer’s failure to tell responding EMT about the subject’s loss of consciousness, use of physical force, or Tasing. The internal investigation does acknowledge the ‘take-down’ (as described by Humphreys at the deposition) is not trained by Portland Police. The medical examiner found Chasse’s death was caused by blunt trauma in his chest, similar to being tackled.
Ultimately the internal investigation did not address the use of force, a lack of underlying valid core transaction, or another myriad of issues. Essentially the documentary seems to show there is a systemic indifferent problem by police response when dealing with mentally ill persons.
The City of Portland and the AMS (ambulance service) avoided the civil trial by paying about $1.6 million to the Chasse family. The City denied any wrong-doing and denied a police issue. A city official said the police didn’t failed; policy failed.
The federal Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation was started by city leaders, but the Portland Police Bureau did not initially cooperate. The DOJ did determine there is consistent pattern of civil violations by responding Portland Police officers when contacting mentally ill persons.
The documentary was hard to watch. It makes me ask challenging questions:
Is (police misconduct) an endemic problem in policing today?
Do de-humanizing and de-sensitization exist where I work?
Did systemic de-humanizing and de-sensitization become the norm in policing? How?
Are police responses nearly to the edge of criminal indifference?
Are there long-term solutions? Do we need them? What are they?
The documentary does not try to find solutions. I am sure there are no easy solutions.
There are two learning themes to address and hopefully addressing the themes give an ability to grow and learn. The themes are de-humanizing and de-sensitization by police. Here are the elements of both themes:
Allowed de-humanizing actions
Rewarded de-humanizing actions
Def: an act or behavior that undermines individuality. Opposite of personification. Tactic to deny compassion, moral response, and allows atrocity. In the extreme it becomes the Holocaust or the Rwanda Genocide.
Language is one of the easiest ways to detect de-humanizing traits seeping into behavior. Linguist and language specialist can detect family of origin, prejudice (even hidden), socio-economic levels, and much more by hearing normal conversations. Police language is an easy metric for measuring levels of humanistic vs de-humanizing ideas.
One indicator of de-humanization is how police officers when refer to suspects. De-humanizing begins by using judgmental, non-human, anatomy part, or animalistic language. These are words such as:
Dirt bag, shit head
dick head, cunt, asshole,
or hundreds of names or monikers or identifiers.
This vocabulary indicate the underlying belief that subjects are non-human or less than a whole human.
Other de-humanizing language (without of conscious intent) indicates “us versus them” philosophy. At the core, “us vs. them” means ‘we (police) are good and right’ and ‘they (non-police) are bad or wrong’. It further delineates the humans from the sub or non-humans.
Some of the language indicating de-humanizing people may be:
- prey (criminals) vs predator (police)
- happy hunting
- thin blue line
- sheep dog or other words.
Racism, xenophobia, misogyny, bigotry, lack of tolerance, civil right violations, declination of human rights and hate crime have its roots in de-humanization language.
The most de-humanizing response are de-humanizing actions. This indicates the person being contact “isn’t important as a human being”.
Our actions speak so loud our words can’t be trusted. Using this approach, the subject’s ability to conform to normal society makes them seem less than human.
Some actions indicating this de-humanizing belief is:
- Failure to look at the person.
- Using a ‘paternal’ communication approach in dealing with subjects.
- Ignoring the obvious present issues (physical, economic, social, etc.).
- Expecting a person who is mentally ill to respond as if there is no mental illness.
- Minimize mental illness as a ‘real’ illness.
- Minimize suffering or pain.
- Blame the victim.
- Lack of empathy “handcuffs aren’t supposed to be comfortable” “shut up” “I didn’t ask you” “I don’t want your information” “you aren’t important”
- Making fun, ridicule, mock, or deride the subjects with others.
- Attempt to antagonize the subject to get a negative response therefore giving justification to respond with force.
Beliefs are the most insidious component of de-humanizing. If you ask a hundred police supervisors or officers:
“Do you believe subjects are sub-human?”
The answer is a resounding “No! We do not belief that. We believe in the sacredness of life. We treat people as people”. Unfortunately, language and actions betray beliefs. Our true beliefs come from the way we talk and act.
Police culture always overcomes police policy. Policy is always carried out based on the paradigm of the current culture. Ask yourself; “Is there is preponderance of enforcement leveled to a particular population?” If the answer is ‘Yes’, does this mean the population is targeted by de-humanizing beliefs? The answer is maybe. Usually this enforcement bias is not probably by design; bias is more usually by default.
Several police research studies show that enforcement only doesn’t solve community issues. In spite of this knowledge many supervisors and officers enforce violations and laws differently to various population. If a subject is well-dressed, well-spoken, affluent, or appears mainstream; there is less chance of enforcement action. If a subject appears transient or mentally ill there may be more incidents of enforcement action.
Effective policing recognizes that 90% of the solutions are not ‘police’ solutions or ‘enforcement’ solutions. Solutions that work are community or relationship or education or cooperation solutions. Effective policing comes from so-called “community policing” or “MDT” (multi-discipline team) policing.
According to many studies of policing there are several prominent types of policing:
- Watchmen. (The Crime Fighter) Emphasizing law and order. Rules are codified by social, legal, and cultural grounds.
- Legalistic. (The Law Enforcer) Emphasizing law enforcement and professionalism. Effectiveness is measured by police numbers (arrests, citations, amount of drugs seized, subject contact, etc.)
- Service. (The Social Agent) Emphasizes the functions of police work. The question is “Why do we do what we do?” Sometimes referred to as “community policing”.
- Fluid. (The Hybrid) At any given time an officer may police by any type depending on the need, mood, temperament, or population faced.
Def: a process to become less sensitive. The process by making (someone) less likely to feel shock or distress at scenes of cruelty, violence, or suffering by overexposure… Diminished emotional responsiveness to a negative stimulus. Systemic de-sensitization makes de-humanizing possible.
Police officers are exposed to unimaginable suffering, cruelty, and violence. The very nature of the job means an effective police officer must be hardened. They must have some lack of sensitivity. An effective response may be hard to maintain balance. The difference between being sensitive to the right things at the right time is a razor’s edge.
Abnormal behavior becoming normal is nothing new. Most criminals didn’t start with big crime; most became bolder and criminal acts became more serious. Domestic violence often starts with lack of respect and de-humanizing language before moving to physical assault.
This is the true nature of de-sensitization. In police training it is called socialization or ‘becoming a cop’. Over time, police abnormative behavior becomes normative. This callous phenomenon displays true police culture. A ten year police veteran has a different point-of-view than a first year officer. This is based on exposure of abnormative behavior and developed de-sensitivity.
Allowed de-humanizing action:
Without direct intervention things may go awry. The landmark Stanford Prison Experiment (later a movie) was a study in perceived power and psychological effects leading to de-humanizing actions. The de-humanizing actions were allowed and even expected. This was ‘the way it was supposed to be’.
There is a perception in popular culture that police work (without gender) is a ‘macho’ profession. There is a certain bravado required, according to the archetypes and Hollywood tropes. We allow and permit de-humanizing actions and sometimes even encourage them.
Rewarded de-humanizing actions:
There is vast chasm between allowing and rewarding de-humanizing behavior. However, when our police system does not chasten or correct unwanted behavior, this behavior is essentially being rewarded. Police systems overtly celebrate or reward de-humanizing actions by promotions, primo assignments, medals, acknowledgment, or other kudos. Over time this causes the system crumbles into de-humanization.
Rewarded de-humanizing actions is normal in popular movies and television. Some examples may be:
The French Connection
End of Watch
…. And the list goes on
As a society we have created a generation of movie watchers who are de-sensitized and prone to de-humanizing because exposure to popular culture. This fantasy world, too often, seeps into the real world.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER
Q: Is this (police misconduct) an endemic problem in policing today?
A: The answer depends on who you ask. Social critics say yes. The agencies say no.
If a police agency says “Yes”, they open the organization for civil lawsuits, personnel action, and who else knows what is in that Pandora’s Box. This risk-averse point of view leads to a culture of denial, an inability to self-censure, or ability to change or grow. If there is no problem; then there is no solution needed. Nothing to see here.
To find the answer if police misconduct exists, the leaders must examine the agency’s language, thoughts, and police actions. Historically this examination is the function of federal investigations (Department of Justice/DOJ) when prompted by allegations of wrong-doing. Sometimes the results lead to a consent decree settlement and becomes the catalyst to change police responses.
The feds have reached over 100 consent degrees in the past 10 years. By these numbers, there is NOT an issue in policing. There are almost 18,000 agencies (as of 2012) and there were less than 100 DOJ investigations initiated a year. This is about ½ of 1% or scientifically noted as .0055.
Q: Do de-humanizing and de-sensitization exist where I work?
A: Again, it depends on who you ask. If there is no problem, there is no solution needed. It’s easier to deny an issue than solve one.
The progressive forward thinking leader acts pro-actively. Usually this leader may consider this is an issue and work to solve the issue before it becomes a cancer.
Q: Did systemic de-humanizing and de-sensitization become the norm in policing? How?
A: I think it is the norm. However, to survive in the police field there will be some “numbing”. This became the norm because police agencies have been given the response of responding to mental illness crisis without training or a ‘heads up’.
Society has changed the expectations for police responses. Historically, police has assumed the role of “law enforcer”. Today’s police are expected to be “law enforcer” and they are also expected to be responding “social workers”. The career field was not prepared for these expectations.
The police response that worked in the 1990’s (and prior) do not work in today’s world. Social media, instant connections, video capture, and popular culture that blurs reality/real life have impacted society’s expectation for police response. An expected result will be to de-sensitize and de-humanize that which is not familiar.
Q: Are police responses nearly to the edge of criminal indifference?
A: The great majority police officers are not indifferent to the human suffering they see daily. Most are compassionate and humbled by their law enforcement experience. Criminal indifference becomes when the responding police officers have been given no tools or ways of dealing with the over-whelming stimulus. Or conversely, police administrators have not recognized when the responding police are over-saturated and need assistance to remember their humanity.
Allow the possibility there is room for improvement
Create memo discouraging/prohibiting non-humanizing language when writing or acting as an officer
Stop rewarding de-humanizing behavior
Create a dialogue with community partners
Ask for positive examples from the community. Reward those actions.
Be the example.
Hold self, supervisors, and staff to the example
Find the hiring components that support humanistic ideals and hire those people
Stop using non-humanizing language.
Coach other to stop non-humanizing language
Look for positive language and recognize this behavior
Hold self-accountable for actions
Don’t turn a deaf ear. Listen for and correct de-humanizing language.
Practice humility. Check your ego
Remember we are a public servant organization
Find ability to create personal resiliency
Recognize humanity when it presents itself
Make a game with yourself to humanize subjects
This synopsis and analysis is the opinion of Officer Jay Irvin, PhD. Jay is a Police Officer and Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). Jay is a recycled behavior change therapist with an earned Doctorate in Human Behavior Psychology. He’s a speaker and writer on leadership and organizational change.
These opinions reflect Officer’s Irvin and may not reflect the city or police department belief.