Killed At Home: White Plains, NY Police Called Out On Medical Alert Shoot Dead Black Veteran, 68

Democracy Now*

The Chamberlain family.

HAVANA TIMES, March 29 — As the Trayvon Martin case draws national attention, we look at another fatal shooting of an African-American male that has received far less scrutiny.

Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., a 68-year-old African-American Marine veteran, was fatally shot in November by White Plains, NY, police who responded to a false alarm from his medical alert pendant. The officers hurled racial slurs at Chamberlain, broke down his door, tasered him, and then shot him dead.

We’re joined by Chamberlain’s son, Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr., and two of his attorneys. One of the attorneys, Mayo Bartlett, questions the police response to the shooting, comparing it to the official story that emerged after George Zimmerman shot the unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, last month.

“It’s very similar to Mr. Zimmerman suggesting that he had a bloody nose, and now you look at the video, and it doesn’t appear to be the case,” says Bartlett. “That really makes you question what we’re being told sometimes by government with respect to these types of matters.” Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr., struggles through tears to recount his father’s final moments, including the way police officers mocked his father’s past as a marine. “For them to look at my father that way, (with) no regard for his life, every morning I think about it,” he says.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As the shooting death of Trayvon Martin continues to draw national attention, today we look at another controversial shooting of an African-American male that has received far less scrutiny. On the morning of November 19th, a 68-year-old former marine named Kenneth Chamberlain with a heart condition accidentally pressed the button on his medical alert system while sleeping. Responding to the alert, police officers from the city of White Plains, New York, arrived at Chamberlain’s apartment in a public housing complex shortly after 5 a.m. By the time the police left the apartment, Kenneth Chamberlain was dead, shot twice in the chest by a police officer inside his home. Police gained entry to Chamberlain’s apartment only after they took his front door off its hinges. Officers first shot him with a taser, then a beanbag shotgun, and then with live ammunition.

AMY GOODMAN: Police have insisted the use of force was warranted. They said Kenneth Chamberlain was emotionally disturbed and had pulled a knife on the officers. This is David Chong, public safety commissioner in White Plains.

DAVID CHONG: The officers first used an electronic taser, which was discharged, hit the victim, and had no effect. While the officers were retreating, the officers then used a shotgun, a beanbag shotgun.

AMY GOODMAN: Relatives of Kenneth Chamberlain have questioned the police portrayal of events that led to his death, and they say audio and video recorded at the scene back up their case. According to the family, Kenneth Chamberlain can be heard on an audio recording of his call to the medical alert system operator saying, quote, “Please leave me alone. I’m 68 with a heart condition. Why are you doing this to me? Can you please leave me alone?” Officers allegedly responded by calling Chamberlain a racial slur while urging him to open the door. The audio recording of the incident has not been made public and remains in the possession of the Westchester District Attorney’s office.

In early December, Kenneth Chamberlain, a retired marine, was buried with military honors. The family posted video of part of the ceremony.

Several months after his death, the name of the officer who killed Kenneth Chamberlain has yet to be released. The DA has vowed to convene a grand jury to determine if any of the officers should face charges.

We invited the White Plains Police Department and the Westchester DA’s office on to the program, but they declined to join us or issue a comment. But we are joined by Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr., the son of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., the victim, and by two of the family’s attorneys. Mayo Bartlett is the former chief of the Bias Crimes Unit of the Westchester County District Attorney’s office and the former chair of the Westchester County Human Rights Commission. Randolph McLaughlin is a longtime civil rights attorney. He teaches at Pace Law School.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Our condolences to your family, Kenneth Chamberlain, on the death of your father.


AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what you understand happened early in the morning of November 19th.

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: Well, it’s my understanding that, from what I’ve gathered right now, that my father accidentally pushed his medical pendant around his neck. He could have possibly turned over on it. We don’t know. We can only speculate about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did he wear it?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: He has a heart condition, and he also suffered from COPD. And when he—the pendant was triggered—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re holding that in—


AMY GOODMAN: —his hand.

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: This is his pendant right here. It was triggered, and the medical company—there’s a box inside his home. The medical company asked him if he was all right. They didn’t get a response. So, automatically, if you don’t get a response, they send medical services to your house. They informed the police that they are responding to a medical emergency, not a crime. And once they arrived at my father’s home, my father did tell them that he was OK. But for some reason, they wanted to gain entry into my father’s home. I don’t know why. And in the audio, you hear my father telling them that he’s fine, he’s OK.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, this is an important point, that there was audio going on throughout this between the firm and your father.


JUAN GONZALEZ: And so, much of the activity of the police was caught on this audio.


AMY GOODMAN: So the box on the wall records everything that’s—

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: It’s actually a box that just sat on his table in the—in his dining room area. It just sat there. And it’s connected to the phone company. So if he does trigger it, as I said, you hear a loud beeping noise. And then the operator, from their central station, will come on, and they say, “Mr. Chamberlain, are you OK? You triggered your alarm. Is everything all right?” And, of course, if they don’t get a response, they then contact the officials.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now you were able to hear this audio because the DA’s office allowed you to hear it? How did you—


JUAN GONZALEZ: But it has not yet been released.


AMY GOODMAN: So, continue. You hear your father through the door telling the police he’s OK. This is about 5:00 in the morning?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: Yes. He’s saying that he’s OK. He’s saying that he did not call for them. But they were very insistent. They were banging on the door, banging on the door, banging on the door. So you hear one of the officers say to him, “Well, you pushed your—you triggered your alarm now.” He said, “That’s because I want you to leave me alone.” And they just kept telling him, “Open the door. Open the door. Let us see that you’re all right.” At some point, the door was cracked open, because the police officers have a taser that has a camera on it, and it also has audio. So you could see where the door was cracked open. So, once you’ve gotten a visual, and you’ve seen that my father is OK, and he’s telling you that he’s OK, why would you still insist on getting into the apartment? Which is the question that I have. And they weren’t responding to a crime. He was sleeping and accidentally triggered his alarm.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the officers then did what?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: Ultimately, after using expletives and racial slurs, they broke down the door. You can see on the video from the taser that they fired a taser at him. And I’m assuming that both prongs didn’t go in. He stood about maybe eight to 10 feet away from them with his hands down to his side. And at one point, you hear one of the officers say, “Cut it off.” And it was at that point they shot and killed my father.

AMY GOODMAN: They shot him with beanbag also?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: Well, we didn’t see that. So I can’t—I can’t confirm or deny that.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you hear what the police officers were saying, were shouting to him before they—did they take the door off the hinges?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: They took it completely off the hinges.

AMY GOODMAN: To get in.

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: Yes. There were no orders given to him once they knocked the door down, though, which you would have expected, that they would have given some type of verbal command and said, “Get down on the floor. Put your hands up. Get against the wall.” None of those things were said.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the allegation that he tried to attack them with a weapon first through the crack in the door and then once they got in the house?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: I didn’t see that. I can’t say that it didn’t happen, but from the video that I’ve seen and from what I gathered from the audio, I didn’t see where my father attacked them. And he was inside his home, so where was the immediate threat?

AMY GOODMAN: What exactly did you hear your father say? He was inside the house as the police are coming inside, and the medical pendant company is recording all of this.

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: I’ve heard—I heard several things on there. One thing you hear is my father pleading with them to leave him alone. Excuse me. You hear him asking them why are they doing this to him. He says, “I’m a 68-year-old man with a heart condition. Why are you doing this to me? I know what you’re going to do: you’re going to come in here, and you’re going to kill me.” You also hear him pleading with the officers again, over and over. And at one point, that’s when the expletive is used by one of the police officers.

AMY GOODMAN: What did they say?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: Where they say, “I don’t give a F.” And then they use the N-word. And then, as I said, ultimately, they bust down the door. And it hurts because, as I said, it didn’t have to go to that point. You also hear the operators from the LifeAid company call the police station and say that they want to cancel the call, Mr. Chamberlain is OK. And at one point you hear the officer there at their central office say, “We’re not canceling anything.” They say, “Call his son. Contact his son.” And they say, “We’re not contacting anyone. We don’t need any mediators.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to bring in Mayo Bartlett, because you’re not only an attorney for the family in this case, but you are also a former prosecutor—


JUAN GONZALEZ: —in Westchester County, so you’re familiar with police procedures in cases like this. I’m struck by the fact that the identity of the police officer involved has not yet been revealed. That’s something that’s pretty routine in cases like this, certainly by this time, because we’re talking about an event that happened in November.

MAYO BARTLETT: Absolutely. I think that anybody who lives in the city of White Plains has to ask themselves whether this individual is working right now. And if so, in what capacity? And I think that it’s just—it’s atrocious that that name has not been released and that the officers involved are not at least on desk duty, some type of modified duty.

Looking at it as a former prosecutor, whenever you talk about a use of force, you always look at a use of force continuum, and it’s an escalation of force. And generally, police departments have rules and protocols which suggest that you should first start out with a verbal command, if in fact there’s even a need to do that and if that’s the least intrusive manner that you can address an issue. And after that, it goes generally to a light hands application, and it goes up from there to possibly a baton, pepper spray, possibly a taser. And you use deadly force only when it’s necessary to prevent deadly force from being used.

And in this case, Mr. Chamberlain didn’t have a gun. Mr. Chamberlain, when I saw the videotape, did not have a knife when he was in his apartment. You see a 68-year-old man with no shirt on and boxer shorts and his hands down at his sides. And I didn’t see any weapon in his hands there.

And the other thing that’s troubling to me is the fact that a taser was used at all, because you’re there for a medical response. You’re not there investigating a criminal act. You are there with the understanding that there may be a person who needs medical assistance.

AMY GOODMAN: For a man with a heart condition, no less.

MAYO BARTLETT: Absolutely. And so, if you understand that, to use a taser, which is going to send significant electricity through that person’s body, would be, at best, reckless. And that alone could cause his death. And the thing that’s extremely troubling to me is that, again, the police were not there to respond to criminal activity. They went to the gentleman’s house at 5:00 in the morning to give him assistance. The only reason that he had the LifeAid pendant to begin with was so that his family and that he would be comfortable that if something was to occur, he would be able to get assistance.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read part of the initial news coverage around the killing of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. The headline on the News 12 website read, quote, “Officer fatally shoots hatchet-wielding man.” website posted an article titled “Police Fatally Shoot Disturbed Man Carrying Knife.” The story begins, quote, “White Plains police say an officer discharged two rounds, fatally shooting an emotionally disturbed White Plains man who attempted to bar officers from entering his apartment with a hatchet and then turned towards police with a butcher’s knife.” Randy McLaughlin, would you respond to this?

RANDOLPH McLAUGHLIN: Well, first, one of the problems in a wrongful death case like this is, you’ve got a decedent, the person who’s dead, and the police initially put out their spin. And that’s a spin. That’s clearly a spin. The videotape had—there’s also a videotape of what happened in that hallway. There’s an audio tape. There’s a videotape of Mr. Chamberlain when they come at him with the taser. This is a clear violation of criminal law and of constitutional rights. In our country, we have a Fourth Amendment that says we’re supposed to be secure in our own homes. Mr. Chamberlain wasn’t attacking anyone. He was in his home. This idea that they—he attacked anyone with a hatchet is, frankly, a lie. That’s what it is. It’s a cover story to cover up what they’ve done here. And we’re meeting with the district attorney this afternoon, of Westchester County, to press for a full prosecution of the highest crimes in this state. There’s a petition, and online petition, that Mr. Chamberlain has put out, and we’re presenting that petition to her today, as well.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It would seem to me that given the fact that they have the audio and the video, and they hear their own officers using racial epithets, would immediately say to the brass of the police department, “We have a problem here,” because that’s going to be in court before a grand jury at some point, and that they had a responsibility at that point to begin doing their own investigation of what’s going on here.

RANDOLPH McLAUGHLIN: They have so many problems here. Mr. Chamberlain’s niece was in the hallway right at the time when they were banging on the door. She said to them, “I’m his niece.” They pushed her away.

AMY GOODMAN: She lived upstairs?


RANDOLPH McLAUGHLIN: On the fifth floor. Another officer who was present had a full head-to-toe body shield that could stop bullets. And rather than secure the situation—let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that they had a right to see him to make sure he was OK. OK, so the door is open. You see him there. Why are you entering his apartment? It’s kind of like Zimmerman. You provoke a situation, then you respond to it, “Oh, I had to use deadly force to protect myself.” No, you provoked the situation. You had no right to cross that man’s threshold in his home. That’s what led to the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, New York State Senator Suzi Oppenheimer wrote a letter to Westchester County District Attorney voicing support for an investigation into the killing. She wrote, quote, “I ask that you do everything in your power to ensure that there is a full and fair investigation of this incident and that all relevant information is presented to the grand jury for its consideration.” She has so far been the only state legislator to speak out, is this right, Mayo?

MAYO BARTLETT: Yeah, that’s correct. And the thing is, I want to follow on what Randy just said in terms of Mr. Zimmerman. I think that this—and I don’t—I’m not comparing the two tragedies. I don’t like to do that. But what I do think is this. Mr. Zimmerman is a private citizen. This is individuals who are acting under color of law. These are people who are employed by the government to give you assistance. So I think that that’s even more egregious than an individual who may exercise terrible judgment or have bias in their heart.

And I think that it also is—it is a travesty that we don’t have any reaction from public officials. And if you simply reverse the roles here, if Mr. Chamberlain had shot at a police officer or harmed a police officer, even if it wasn’t with deadly force, if an officer ended up having a bloody nose, in all likelihood Mr. Chamberlain, 68-year-old 20-year retired corrections officer and a gentleman who served this country in the Marines for six years, would have been charged with a felony assault. And we would have heard from all of our elected officials. They would have talked about him probably in disparaging ways. They would have possibly called him an animal, as sometimes people who are alleged to have committed these crimes are referred to.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you about this issue, that they’re talking about bringing this case to a grand jury in April. This happened in November. We’re talking now five or six months later that they’re empaneling even a grand jury to discuss the facts, not necessarily to charge—possibly to charge someone. But it seems to me a long time to wait for—even for a grand jury on this.

MAYO BARTLETT: Well, it is a good amount of time. And part of it is an investigatory process, but it is a long time. And the biggest concern I have with respect to the grand jury is that we do not have an opportunity to present information to a grand jury in New York state. The only person who does that is the district attorney’s office. So we can’t even determine whether they’re going to play the audio tape at all. if there will play the audio tape, or, if so, whether it’s going to be redacted. So we’re really stuck with a good faith offering from the district attorney that it’s going to be fully presented.

AMY GOODMAN: Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr., tell us about your dad, Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr.

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: When people ask me about that, I tell people he was a father like anyone else. I mean, he agreed with some things that you did, and he disagreed with others. But my father would never hurt anyone intentionally. He wouldn’t go after anyone. I mean, he was law enforcement himself. He was a marine. I’m sure whatever he’s seen when he served, that that was enough violence for him. And for them to look at my father that way, without—I mean, no regard for his life, every morning I think about it, just the circumstances, because I guess maybe around 5:00 in the morning I tend to think about all of this. And it disturbs me about the fact that it hasn’t been presented yet, because I do know, as my attorney said, that if the roles had been reversed, this would already be in a grand jury.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you hear your father had been killed?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: I found out from a friend of mine that Saturday morning. I was up, and my phone rang. And a friend of mine called me, and he said—who also lives in the building—he said, “You need to get out to White Plains right away.” And I asked him why. He said, “Something is going on with your father. I don’t know what it is.” And I asked him, I said, “Well, what’s going on?” And as he was getting ready to tell me, he just yelled out, “Oh, my god!” And I asked him what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m really sorry to put you through this again, to make you relive it.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re holding your father’s ID card, as well?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: Yes. I have his Marine ring and his veteran’s card. My father was—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr., the son of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., who was killed by police on November 19th, 2011, in his home. His medical alert pendant went off, and the company called the police to check on him.


AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Ken. It’s fine.

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: Yes, I have his Marine ring, his veteran’s card. He was proud to be a marine. And even on the audio, you hear the police officers making fun of the fact that he was a marine. And—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: They asked my father to open the door. He refused. He said, “I’m not opening my door.” They said something to the effect that they were going to knock it down. He said, “I won’t let you in.” And he said “Semper Fi.” So they said, “Oh, you’re a marine. Hoo-rah. Hoo-rah.” And this is somebody that served this country. Why would you even say that to him? And my father always said, “Once a marine, always a marine,” if he was ever in trouble and couldn’t get help from anybody else, to call on a marine. And a lot of those things come back now, where things that I had—just I thought went in one ear and right out the other, but in light of these things, when you hear the audio, when you look at the video, all of these things come back.

And in 45 years of me being on this earth, that was the very first time that I ever heard my father where he was pleading and begging for his life, someone who I looked at as being extremely strong, to hear him beg for his life, to say that this was his sworn testimony on the audio, which the police did not know that was being recorded. He said, “My name is Kenneth Chamberlain. This is my sworn testimony. White Plains police are going to come in here and kill me.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, and the amazing thing about this is that they were supposed to come there to assist him—


JUAN GONZALEZ: —that there was no indication of any kind of a crime—


JUAN GONZALEZ: —and that he would have depended on them for help, and instead this happens.

RANDOLPH McLAUGHLIN: I think it’s important—you know, we’re lawyers. This is what we do. But I think it’s important to always remember and look at this case not as a case, but as a human being who lost his life over a needless situation, and look at the impact that this kind of senseless killing has on his family. This man lost his father. He gets a call at 5 a.m. “My father is in—having a difficult” — why didn’t they call him? He could have been there in five minutes. I mean, the lack of professionalism in this department is shocking. The fact that they—that no public official in the city of White Plains has come and said to this man, “I’m sorry over the loss of your father.” I mean, Mayor Bloomberg has done that in New York. Whether I agree with everything he’s done, at least he has the decency to do that. No one has reached out to this man at all.

So, we have prepared to take this case to the fullest extent. We filed a notice of claim on behalf of the family, and we’re waiting a little time to give the DA a chance to do what she has to do. But if they don’t do the right thing in White Plains, we’re coming to Manhattan to seek justice in the Department of Justice with the U.S. attorney’s office.

MAYO BARTLETT: Randy, if I can just follow on what you’re saying also, it’s interesting that the very first coverage of this comes from the White Plains Police Department. And the White Plains Police Department neglects to mention that they were there for a medical emergency. They don’t state that. They lead you to believe that they were there to deal with a person who was out of control, who was a threat to the community, who was somehow out there and required their assistance. And I remember watching it as it occurred, and I’m sitting down with my friend and his sons, who are in high school. And it had a picture of the White Plains police car and a target on the police vehicle, as if the police had been targeted. And there was a statement immediately made that it was a justified shooting. And that statement had to have been made before they were aware that there was audio and that perhaps some of the video contradicts that. And it’s very similar to Mr. Zimmerman suggesting that he had a bloody nose, and now you look at the video, and it doesn’t appear to be the case. And that really makes you question what we’re being told sometimes by government with respect to these types of matters.

And to any degree that Mr. Chamberlain was emotional, it was because he was taunted. They created the situation. They escalated a situation. And police are trained. They’re trained to deal with people who are emotionally disturbed. They’re not trained to kill those individuals, and certainly not an individual who’s 68 years old when you have a ballistic shield and a dozen officers and firefighters that are present who could have simply gone in. But there was a suggestion that Mr. Chamberlain had left his home and that the officers were retreating. That never occurred. The minute they got into the house, they didn’t even give him one command. They never mentioned, “Put your hand up.” They never told him to lay down on the bed. They never did any of that. The first thing they did, as soon as that door was finally broken off the hinges, you could see the taser light up, and it was charged, and you could see it going directly toward him. Now that was 100 percent unnecessary.

And when you see that video, which I wish was public, because I think that the grand jury is used as a shield, and it shouldn’t be. It’s a shield for people who have committed crimes and generally a shield for law enforcement, because, again, these same videos are made public, very public, when they involve civilians who are charged. And I think that the shielding provision of the grand jury, the secrecy provision, is to prevent people from organized—being threatened by organized crime figures, not to protect you from your own police department.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us and end on a final question to Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr. When you heard of the killing of Trayvon Martin, your thoughts, as you’re going through what you’re going? They’re saying they, too, in Florida, will be convening a grand jury, apparently at about the same time as the grand jury will be convened in the case of the death of your father that occurred months earlier.

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: My heart definitely goes out to that family, because I know exactly what it is that they’re feeling right now. And it took me a while before I actually listened to the released 911 tapes of that day with that young man. And when I finally got up the nerve to listen to it, to hear him in the background yelling for help—and I think it was about maybe three times—and then you hear a gunshot, and you don’t hear him anymore, it brought tears to my eyes immediately. And it—of course, it also made me think about my own father, because I hear him pleading for his life, too. And it’s the same thing that happened with this young man. So I would just encourage that family to just keep up the fight and don’t give up, the same as I’m doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kenneth Chamberlain, I want to thank you very much for being with us. You have a petition online right now?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN, JR.: I just took the petition down, but I also have a Facebook page that says “Justice for Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr.” that a lot of people have gone on and requested to be a part of, where I just keep people updated about the events that are taking place. Very recently, I just posted that I was going to be here. And before that, I spoke about the fact that no elected officials in White Plains have spoken to my family, and why haven’t they? They haven’t commented. And you would think that they would. But I guess that’s another question for another day.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we certainly will continue to follow this case.


AMY GOODMAN: Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr., Mayo Bartlett and Randolph McLaughlin, thank you very much for being with us.

(*) See this interview on Democracy Now.