Did Kenneth Chamberlain have to die?

By Alan Bean

While the Trayvon Martin case dominates the headlines, this story hasn’t received the attention it deserves.  As usual, the facts are messy.  Police officers, accompanying a medical team responding to a medical alert, end up shooting a 68 year-old ex-marine to death.  The New York Times story below is over a month old.  More recently, Democracy Now devoted a segment to the tragedy.  Apart from that, the mainstream and alternative media have shown little interest.

The similarities between the Kenneth Chamberlain and Trayvon Martin stories are striking.  In both cases, men with guns manufactured crisis conditions that could have been easily avoided.  In both cases, an innocent man died.

It is difficult to assess how race played into either narrative.  George Zimmerman thought Trayvon Martin was suspicious.  Maybe it was the way he was walking or the way it was dressed.  It now appears that the 9-1-1 operator introduced the race issue, but Zimmerman was responding to visual cues of some kind.  I’m not sure how suspicious a skinny kid with iced tea and skittles can look.  But Zimmerman wasn’t seeing a kid with iced tea and skittles; he saw someone who didn’t belong in his neighborhood–an alien element.

One obvious difference between these tragic tales is that one involved police officers while the other involved an armed civilian.  The difference is more apparent than real.  Zimmerman, for reasons that are not yet clear, saw himself as a kind of reserve police officer.  If officers can pull over and question suspicious people, George thought he ought to be able to do it too.  Legally, he might have been on solid ground–that’s the scary thing about the Trayvon Martin case.

When it becomes necessary to question suspects, there are good reasons why we call police officers.  They have the training, experience, and procedures to handle potentially volatile confrontations with disciplined grace and professionalism.

At least that’s the theory.  Although the facts remain a bit unclear, it appears that the police officers responsible for Kenneth Chamberlain’s shooting intentionally and foolishly escalated the tension in the room.  This happens all too often.  Sometimes its an innocent civilian who takes the bullet; sometimes its the police officer.  But when fear overrides common sense, bad decisions are made.

The official account of the story that has appeared in the local press makes the behavior of police officers appear somewhat justified.  But members of Mr. Chamberlain’s family say they have listened to recording from a variety of sources related to the incident that raise serious questions.

We will have to wait for this story to play out.  The White Plains District Attorney says he will present the shooting to a grand jury–the name of the shooter has still not been released to the public.

Similarly, we have much to learn about the Trayvon Martin case.  But this much we know: there was simply no way things could end well when an armed George Zimmerman stalked and confronted an unarmed and law-abiding adolescent.  Laws that encourage this kind of vigilante recklessness (as “stand your ground” clearly does) need to be rescinded.

We will monitor the Chamberlain tragedy and give you an update as the story unfolds.  Thanks to former Friends of Justice intern (and current Harvard Divinity student) Pierre Berastain  for bringing this case to our attention.

 ‘Officers, Why Do You Have Your Guns Out?’

Published: March 5, 2012

The niece stood in the darkened stairwell of the Winbrook Houses, listening, as 20 feet away five police officers yelled at her uncle, who had locked himself in his apartment.

It was 5:25 on a chill November morning. The officers banged loud and hard, demanding that her 68-year-old uncle open his door.

“He was begging them to leave him alone,” she recalls. “He sounded scared.” She pulls her shawl about her shoulders and her voice cracks; she is speaking for the first time about what she saw. “I heard my uncle yelling, ‘Officers, officers, why do you have your guns out?’ ”

The string of events that night sounds prosaic, a who-cares accumulation of little mistakes and misapprehensions. Cumulatively, though, it is like tumbling down the stairs. Somehow the uncle, Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., a former Marine who had heart problems and wheezed if he walked more than 40 feet, triggered his medical alert system pendant. The system operator came on the loudspeaker in his one-bedroom apartment, asking: “Mr. Chamberlain, are you O.K.?” All of this is recorded.

Mr. Chamberlain didn’t respond. So the operator signaled for an ambulance. Police patrol cars fell in behind — standard operating procedure in towns across America. Except an hour later, even as Mr. Chamberlain insisted he was in good health, the police had snapped the locks on the apartment door.

They fired electric charges from Tasers, and beanbags from shotguns. Then they said they saw Mr. Chamberlain grab a knife, and an officer fired his handgun.

Boom! Boom! Mr. Chamberlain’s niece Tonyia Greenhill, who lives upstairs, recalls the echoes ricocheting about the hall. She pushed out a back door and ran into the darkness beneath overarching oaks. He lay on the floor near his kitchen, two bullet holes in his chest, blood pooling thick, dying.

It makes sense to be humble in the presence of conflicting accounts. The White Plains public safety commissioner declared this a “warranted use of deadly force”; the shooter was later put on modified assignment. Mr. Chamberlain, in the commissioner’s telling, had withstood electric charges, grabbed a butcher knife and charged the officers.

The alert system phone in Mr. Chamberlain’s apartment recorded most of the standoff, as did a security camera in the hall. And the officers’ Tasers carried video recorders.

Last month, the Westchester County district attorney played these for the dead man’s son, Kenneth Chamberlain Jr., who teaches martial arts for a local nonprofit organization and intends to file a lawsuit. He is lithe, with a shaved head, and takes pride in a reasoned manner. “My family, we’re not into histrionics,” he says. “We don’t run down the street inciting riot.”

His voice cracks, though, as he describes the tapes. “I heard fear,” he says. “In my 45 years on this earth, I never heard my father sound like that.”

The district attorney will present the case to a grand jury and has not released transcripts. But the family’s recollection matches that of neighbors who listened through closed doors.

They say officers taunted Mr. Chamberlain. He shouted: “Semper fi,” the Marine Corps motto. The police answered with loud shouts of “Hoo-rah!” Another officer, the niece says, said he wanted to pee in Mr. Chamberlain’s bathroom.

Someone, the niece and neighbors say, yelled a racial epithet at the door. Black and white officers were present.

Kenny Randolph listened from his apartment across the hall. “They put fear in his heart,” he says. “It wasn’t a crime scene until they made it one.”

The police say Mr. Chamberlain was “known” to them, although it appears he had not been convicted of a crime. There are intimations that he wrestled with emotional issues. Sometimes, neighbors say, he talked to himself. Who’s to say? As often, life’s default position is set to “complicated.”

Many police departments have trained corps of officers expert in talking with the emotionally upset. Their rule of thumb: talk quietly and de-escalate. That night in White Plains, no one appeared to have de-escalated anything.

Mr. Chamberlain sounded spooked. His son recalls hearing his father say on tape: “This is my sworn testimony. White Plains officers are coming in here to kill me.” A few minutes later, a bullet tore through his rib and heart. The ambulance took him to White Plains Hospital, where he soon died.

His son lives five minutes away. He says he could have talked his father down. Standing in the office of his lawyer Randolph M. McLaughlin, he mimes knocking on his dad’s door. “Dad, it’s me, Ken, I’m here.” His eyes are bloodshot and brimming. “I always said, ‘I’m the protector now.’ But I wasn’t there when he needed me.”