Police Did Not Need to Kill Chamberlain
By Bennett L. Gershman Journal News May 12, 2012
Kenneth Chamberlain did not have to die. He did nothing wrong. He had not committed any crime, was not a terrorist, a fugitive, or holding any hostages.
He was an emotionally disturbed 68-year-old African-American man who lived alone in his ground-floor apartment in White Plains when his heart monitor accidentally went off at 5 a.m. last Nov. 19, triggering a medical alert and the dispatch of White Plains police to his residence. What followed from this seemingly inconsequential event was an ugly, violent and rapidly escalating confrontation between Chamberlain and the White Plains police that ended with Chamberlain shot to death. Why did this happen, and what can we learn from it?
A grand jury earlier this month, after a lengthy inquiry, found no legal grounds to charge the police criminally in connection with Chamberlain’s death. David Chong, White Plains commissioner of Public Safety, said in the early going that “every avenue was used” before deadly force was needed. Janet DiFiore, Westchester district attorney, and Thomas Roach, mayor of White Plains, have promised a thorough review of police procedures and protocols.
For me, however, and for most concerned citizens, there is the recurring and unsettling question of whether the police needed to kill Chamberlain. There is a huge difference between finding criminal liability for police shootings and determining that police, even though legally justified in using lethal force that causes a person’s death, nevertheless may have used terribly bad judgment in choosing to use deadly force.
Did the police need to kill Christopher Ridley in January 2008 on a White Plains street corner? Did the police need to kill Danroy Henry last year in a parking lot in Thornwood? Did the police need to gun down Kenneth Chamberlain in his White Plains apartment? I’m fairly certain almost every police officer would consider this question foolish and unfair. For I was not there, they would argue. I cannot appreciate the mindset, and the perception of the perils, risks and threats that police perceive when they encounter a fast-moving situation that reasonably necessitates the use of deadly force.
But in reviewing the hundreds of grand jury documents made available by the District Attorney relating to the violent confrontation and subsequent killing of Kenneth Chamberlain, several important points emerge:
– The police knew from the moment they appeared on Mr. Chamberlain’s doorstep that they were dealing with an emotionally disturbed man. This was confirmed by Mr. Chamberlain’s irrational comments asking President Obama to send in the Marines, shouting, “Semper fi, do or die,” and yelling that “you kidnapped my grandchildren, you kidnapped my wife, you raped my daughter.”
The police were asked repeatedly by Chamberlain to leave, told that he was alright and he did not need assistance. Despite these requests, the police demanded entry into his apartment, and from the evidence, it appears that rather than trying to diffuse an incendiary encounter with potentially tragic consequences, the police escalated the situation, going back to headquarters to arm themselves with riot gear, then making several attempts with sledge hammers and bolt cutters to break down Chamberlain’s door, which would make a catastrophic conclusion almost inevitable.
The verbalization used by the White Plains police in dealing with a man they knew was emotionally disturbed and acting increasingly erratically, rather than trying to employ various confrontation-diffusing techniques employed by mental health professionals, was demanding, commanding and overtly hostile. The fact that one of the officers used an ugly racial epithet during the encounter underscores the adversarial battle waged by the police.
– Although Chamberlain did threaten the police with a butcher knife and a hatchet, the police also knew that Chamberlain did not have a gun. And without in any way trying to minimize the threat from a knife, the danger to a police officer from a knife is far less than the threat from a gun, in terms of both the immediacy and the proximity of the potential harm, and the police certainly knew that, and they had the equipment to dislodge the knife.
– In reviewing the references in the White Plains police manual on training how to deal with emotionally disturbed persons and what protocols to follow in special response situations (e.g., situations with hostages), there is no guidance on specific responses by police to persons with emotional or mental illnesses. There is no specific reference to using less-than-lethal weapons, training and deploying specialized police officers, deploying specialized non-police officers, or using crisis intervention teams that have been used successfully in many U.S. cities.
– Apart from the failure of the White Plains police to utilize professionals skilled in talking to emotionally disturbed persons (the standoff lasted over an hour so there certainly was time to contact such persons, and there didn’t appear to be any need for a speedy resolution to the standoff), I was struck by the failure of the police to include any member of Mr. Chamberlain’s family to assist in the encounter. Mr. Chamberlain’s niece lived in the building and was present at the scene, and spoke to the police. It may be that the police sought such assistance and were refused, but I doubt that.
– After the police broke down Chamberlain’s door, they entered with guns drawn, and used a Taser and bean bags from shotgun to try to knock Chamberlain down and dislodge his knife (why they did not use pepper spray, which is included in the manual as an option is unclear), and then planned to use the riot shield to cover his knife hand. It is interesting that the police displayed a marked awareness of the difference between aiming a shot at the upper and lower parts of a person’s body – one of the officers directed that the bean bag be shot at Chamberlain’s leg to knock him down, but not to shoot at his chest in view of his heart condition.
The killing of Kenneth Chamberlain, as the district attorney stated, is a tragedy on many levels. His death was needless. He did nothing wrong. He did not want the police to enter his home. He valued his privacy, his liberty, indeed his dignity. His home was his sanctuary, his “castle.” That’s what the Founding Fathers believed when they wrote the Bill of Rights that made the home a special refuge that even the King of England could not enter without a warrant. Kenneth Chamberlain may have known something like that. We’ll never know.
The writer, a frequent contributor on legal issues, is a professor at Pace University Law School and a former Manhattan prosecutor.
Nearly 200 Rally in Westchester for Chamberlain
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – Nearly 200 people marched Saturday in White Plains demanding the firing or suspension of the police officers involved in the shooting death of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. on Nov. 19. Before their quarter-mile march, they gathered at the Thomas H. Slater Center, where several spoke of their fight to get justice for the former Marine and others who have been killed or injured recently by police officers.
“There has to be oversight,” said Chamberlain’s son, Kenneth Chamberlain Jr. “It’s not just about justice for Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. It’s about justice for anyone that is a victim of anything that’s questionable by a people who swore an oath to serve and to protect.”
Kenneth Chamberlain Jr., who has received support from the state and localNAACP chapters, revealed that he has questioned himself about that day and thought, “what if” he had been there with his father, but always came to the same conclusion.
“I would probably be dead right along with my father, because they probably would have killed me, too, and they definitely would have planted something on me and said, ‘He attacked us,’ ” Chamberlain said.
Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., 68, was shot after police responded to a LifeAid alert, which he apparently had mistakenly pressed. Public Safety Commissioner David Chong has said that Chamberlain lodged a hatchet in the door when police were talking to him from outside his ground-floor apartment at the Winbrook public housing complex, and that he had a butcher knife when they forcibly entered. Chong said the officers tried to use nonlethal tactics, but Chamberlain, a former Marine and correction officer, came at one of the officers with the knife, prompting Officer Anthony Carelli to shoot him twice in the chest. An autopsy found that Chamberlain was legally drunk.
On May 3, a 23-person Westchester County grand jury decided not to indict the White Plains police officers involved the shooting. A federal investigation into the matter was opened.
Chamberlain Jr. said Saturday that he was upset with black Westchester County elected officials for their lack of action and for not contacting him and his family.
“My biggest question is, where are our black elected officials?” Chamberlain said. “Where they at? Why hasn’t any of them said anything to me or my family?”
He said during the march that elected officials should “step up and demand that there be some type of accountability.”
“You just can’t let situations like this happen and our elected officials, people who we vote for, do not step and say something is wrong here and demand for an investigation,” Chamberlain said.
He was irate at Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore, saying that she did not care about the case.
“When you have some of the top legal minds that have listened to the audio and the video and it is very clear criminal wrongdoing – you even have police officers that listened to the audio and video and have said there was criminal wrongdoing here,” Chamberlain said. “So, why is it that our top law enforcement officer of Westchester County can’t see that? The only thing that I can is that maybe she didn’t want to see it.”
Several people spoke at the rally, including Chamberlain; his attorneys; Maria Valentin, chair of the Lower Hudson Valley Civil Liberties Union; and others.
While Valentin, along with the other speakers, wants an independent review board established in the county, she would also like the county to take a look at “how we recruit police officers.”
“They have a difficult job to do,” she said. “I think they deserve more pay and in turn we can ask more from them.”
Valentin added that this “egregious” incident “makes people realize if we don’t stand up and act, it’s going to get worse.” She stressed that the group is “not against the police at all.”
“Our issue is with police officers who don’t follow protocol, or in support of what they interpret as protocol don’t follow common sense, and that’s not most of the police officers,” Valentin said.
The march went to the White Plains Police Department and then continued with more speeches in front of the statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. outside the Westchester County Courthouse.
During the march, Chamberlain said he was pleased to see hundreds attend the event.
“There will be justice for Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. I’m here for as long as it takes. I’m not going anywhere,” he said.