The family of Kenneth Chamberlain, a marine veteran shot dead by police in his home, say they hope federal prosecutors will indict and prosecute the officer who killed him.
US attorneys are currently reviewing the death of Chamberlain, an ailing 68-year-old African American who was killed by a white police officer last year in White Plains, New York.
Lawyers for Chamberlain’s family say his death raises issues of what they believe are problems of racial bias and brutality within the White Plains police department; problems that they say require investigation.
On Thursday a grand jury declined to indict a White Plains officer, Anthony Carelli, for the death. On Friday the Chamberlain family sent a letter to US attorney-general Eric Holder, requesting an investigation into the incident; less than an hour later the United States attorney’s office announced it was reviewing the case.
“There will be justice for Kenneth Chamberlain Sr,” his son, Kenneth Chamberlain Jr, told the Guardian. He said that as long as the US attorney’s office conducts a thorough investigation, he was confident there would be “some kind of criminal indictment”.
When that happens, Chamberlain Jr says, he will be free to mourn; something he says he has been unable to do in the months following his father’s death.
On November 19, Chamberlain, who had a serious heart condition, tripped a medical alert pendant he wore around his neck. The company that supplied the pendant dispatched an ambulance to the public housing complex where he lived. Three officers already facing claims for alleged civil rights abuses also responded to the scene. A little over an hour after they arrived Chamberlain had been seared with a Taser, shot with bean bags fired from a shotgun and ultimately killed by a bullet that tore through his lungs.
The police said Chamberlain was “acting irrationally” and pushed knives through his partially opened door as they attempted to get inside his home. The police department argued that Carelli fired in defence of himself and his fellow officers and acted within department guidelines.
Last week, White Plains district attorney Janet DiFiore said Chamberlain’s death was “a tragedy on many levels”, but concluded there was “no reasonable cause” to indict Carelli. The White Plains police department then released over 200 pages of documents regarding the incident, as well as audio and video recordings from the encounter. The department did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
‘The use of racial slurs is intolerable’
Chamberlain Jr believes the media has played selective portions of the tapes released by police, painting an incomplete picture of his father’s death, and failing to note that he was elderly man with health problems who requested to be left alone.
“You can’t play one clip where you hear my father make a statement and say ‘the first person that comes through the door, I’m gonna kill them,’” Chamberlain Jr said. “What’s being glossed over is the taunting, where you hear officers actually laughing at my father, or actually making fun of his name as they call him ‘Kenny’. And they don’t play the racial slur, either.”
In phone call with the medical company recorded after the police arrived to his home, officers are heard banging on Chamberlain’s window.
“Do not do that. I’m telling you all, I’m telling you all I’m OK,” Chamberlain said in response to the pounding on the door. A voice then responds to Chamberlain: “I don’t give a fuck, nigger.”
Randolph McLaughlin, an attorney for the Chamberlain family, says officer Stephen Hart was recorded telling Chamberlain: “We gotta talk, nigger”.
DiFore said the racial slur was used to “distract” Chamberlain but added: “The use of [racial epithets] by anyone, let alone a public servant who is sworn to uphold the public good, is intolerable.”
Chamberlain also called out the marine slogans “semper fi” and “hoorah”, prompting mimicking “hoorahs” from the officers.
Family members made attempts to intervene and reason with Chamberlain, both on the scene and over the phone, but were blocked by police.
In a verbal statement to police, Chamberlain’s niece Tonyia Greenhill, who lived in the building, said she identified herself to officers at the scene but they didn’t respond. She claims one officer asked her uncle to let him in so he could “take a piss”. Chamberlain told him to go somewhere else and Greenhill says the officers laughed.
Chamberlain’s family and their legal representatives sent a letter to Holder’s office, accusing the White Plains police department of acting “in contravention of Chamberlain’s constitutional rights”, and called for a criminal investigation.
Shortly after, the US attorney’s office for the southern district of New York said it would review the case. “We will review all of the available evidence with respect to the death of Kenneth Chamberlain, including the evidence collected during the state’s investigation, to determine whether there were any violations of the federal criminal civil rights laws,” it said in a statement.
‘I refuse to mourn until I there is some type of justice’
Before he died, Chamberlain spoke to an operator from the medical alert company that supplied his pendant. He detailed the weapons the officers were carrying, and predicted they would kill him. The company attempted to cancel the medical response with a phone call but a 911 operator said the officers were “going to make entry anyway”.
With the officers refusing to leave, Chamberlain – who had emotional difficulties – began to sound increasingly uneasy. He is recorded saying: “They’re breaking through, Mr President.” An autopsy showed later that his blood-alcohol level was 0.11.
“I believe my father feared for his life,” Chamberlain Jr said. “Why he feared for his life, I don’t know, but he feared for his life.”
The moment when police burst into Chamberlain’s home was recorded by a camera attached to a Taser. Grainy images show Chamberlain standing in his underwear as the officers move in. The electric volts sent through his body are visible in the clip. The video does not provide a complete account of the entry, with Chamberlain only coming into focus sporadically. It cuts out before the fatal shot is fired but McLaughlin says the police failed to de-escalate the situation. After shocking him with the Taser, McLaughlin says Chamberlain was quickly shot with bean bags, immediately followed by two live rounds fired from Carelli’s gun, one that apparently missed and one that did not.
According to officer Hart’s incident report, Chamberlain “went down” after the bean bags were fired.
“That means they had an opportunity to subdue him,” McLaughlin said. “An EMS worker tells us there was no pause between the bean bags and the gun. It was bean bag, bean bag, gun.”
Chamberlain Jr and his legal team have urged the justice department to examine the possibility of civil rights abuses within the White Plains police department.
“Three of the officers who were involved in the Chamberlain incident had pending civil rights cases involving allegations of excessive force, brutality, including racial slurs. We don’t know how widespread the problem is, but certainly that’s enough to indicate to us, and including what happened with the Chamberlain case, there’s a problem here,” McLaughlin told the Guardian.
Chamberlain Jr says he’s exhausted himself in the effort to shed light on his father’s death. He suffers from dizziness and headaches and has been advised by his doctor to take a break from pursuing the case.
“It’s very hard to do,” Chamberlain Jr said. “I have not mourned the death of my father yet because I’ve been running around fighting for him since this has happened. I’ll continue to fight and refuse to mourn until I feel that there is some type of justice, and I mean that by some type of criminal indictment on a federal level, as well as a conviction.”
[Special police via Marsan / Shutterstock]