WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — It is the tone of his 68-year-old father’s voice — recorded by a police department stun gun — that stays with Kenneth Chamberlain Jr. more than three years after his father’s death.
“In all my years, I never heard my father sound as afraid as I did when I listened to him on that audio,” Chamberlain said as he stood outside the public housing complex where his father, a Marine Corps veteran, used to live. “How he basically begged for his life and it didn’t matter to these officers. They treated him like he was an animal.”
On Nov. 19, 2011, Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. was shot and killed inside his apartment by members of the White Plains Police Department responding to a medical emergency call from his LifeAid pendant. He wore the device because he had a heart condition and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his family said.
He told officers when they arrived that he had activated the pendant by accident and that he was fine, but police insisted that he open the door. He refused, and after a more than hourlong standoff, officers broke down the door and fired a stun gun and beanbags at him.
Officers maintain that Chamberlain was the aggressor and threatened them with a knife. Officer Anthony Carelli fired a bullet that pierced both of Chamberlain’s lungs, killing him. He was declared dead on arrival at a hospital, and the coroner ruled his death a homicide.
In 2012 a grand jury declined to indict any of the officers involved in Chamberlain’s death. More than three years later, a Department of Justice civil rights investigation into the incident is still open.
Since then, Kenneth Chamberlain Jr. has joined a chorus of voices demanding independent statewide oversight of police involved in the killing of unarmed civilians and an independent monitor to oversee grand juries that decide not to indict officers in such cases.
It appears those voices are finally being heard: Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his annual State of the State address on Jan. 21 outlined a proposal for an independent monitor as well as ways to make grand juries less secretive. His move comes after a year in which a number of high-profile killings of unarmed black civilians by police dominated headlines, including that of Eric Garner, who was unarmed, at the hands of police in Staten Island.
“You can’t have a police department investigating its own officers, nor should you have a district attorney’s office that relies on those officers for their convictions to oversee that investigation. It’s an inherent conflict of interest, and we have seen that in their response to the killings in Westchester County,” said Chamberlain, who now helps run the Westchester Coalition for Police Reform.
Mayo Bartlett, a lawyer representing the Chamberlain family in a $21 million civil suit against the White Plains Police Department, said an independent monitor could not come soon enough. “It’s proven extremely difficult for us to get local politicians to take action in these cases,” he said.
Westchester County, just north of New York City, comprises six cities, 19 towns and 23 villages. Its population, according to the 2010 Census, is nearly 75 percent white. In addition to the Chamberlain case, the Department of Justice is investigating several other cases of alleged police brutality and civil rights violations.
Yonkers is the latest Westchester County police department to come under federal investigation recently, with the Department of Justice holding a community meeting on Jan. 31 asking people with complaints of misconduct from 2011 to the present to come forward.
Police in the town of New Rochelle are also being scrutinized after a video showing an officer drawing his gun at what witnesses said were black teenagers having a snowball fight went viral last week. New Rochelle's police chief maintained officers were responding to a 911 call about a suspect with a gun and called the video misleading, but it has nonetheless become part of the broader outcry over how Westchester County police treat black men.
But not everyone in Westchester County believes state oversight is necessary. Chris McNerney, the chief of police in Greenburgh, which borders White Plains, said it’s a job best left to each department’s internal affairs division.
“We have an internal affairs division that will investigate all allegations made. We do our best to identify issues, address them and make sure they don’t happen again,” he said. “It’s worked for us here. We have arrested many of our police officers ourselves. We have proven that we can police ourselves, and the district attorney has proven that as well.”
Last month McNerney's force became the latest to voluntarily adopt the use of police body cameras.
White Plains Police Commissioner David Chong declined to comment for this article.
On Jan. 15, civil rights, religious and community organizations rallied outside county offices and presented a letter to Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino calling on him to support the governor’s proposal for an independent monitor.
But Damon Jones, a Westchester County corrections officer and member of Blacks in Law Enforcement of America, said that so far, county officials have done little to address the issue of police reform and civil rights.
“We have spoken to county elected officials, mayors and city councils throughout Westchester County, and they have really neglected to step up and do their due diligence,” said Jones, who helped organize the Jan. 15 rally.
“It’s four degrees of separation for those of us who are black law enforcement officers. Either we know the victim or know someone who knows the victim or the victim is a family member or we are the victim when we, as black law enforcement, also fall victim to police brutality,” he added.
Neither Astorino nor Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore returned calls for comment.
The Westchester Coalition for Police Reform has asked Astorino to create specially trained mental health crisis intervention teams in each police department, based on a University of Memphis model. Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. was on psychiatric medication at the time of his death, according to his sister.
“In the Memphis crisis intervention team approach, there are police officers who are specially trained to handle emotionally disturbed people. There are some of those officers on every shift, and they take charge when the call comes in,” said Randolph McLaughlin, an attorney for the Chamberlain family. “Having a team like that on the scene would have changed the outcome in the Chamberlain case tremendously.”
During the standoff, Chamberlain became increasingly agitated and confused. Both his and the responding officers’ voices were recorded by the stun gun and the LifeAid operator, who stayed on the phone during the entire incident.
“This is the health center for LifeAid, Mr. Chamberlain. Do you need help?” an operator can be heard asking early in the call.
“Yes. This is an emergency. I have the White Plains Police Department banging on my door, and I did not call them, and I am not sick,” he responds. LifeAid’s operator then called the White Plains police dispatcher and tried to cancel the emergency call, but police were already on the scene. Before officers broke the door down, Chamberlain can be heard talking to the president of the United States and speaking as if he were part of a military operation.
“In the beginning of the tape, he is just saying, ‘Leave me alone. Just go away,’” said McLaughlin. “After an hour of this, he is in his apartment, it’s small, there’s no way out, and he begins to feel trapped, like a caged animal. By the end of it, he was delusional. He was talking to the president in his final moments. In his mind, he thought he was in a military situation. He believed they were coming in to kill him, and that’s exactly what they did. He was fighting for his life.”
In the recordings, one officer can be heard using a racial slur.
“Mr. Chamberlain!” the officer can be heard yelling.
“Don’t do that, sir. Don’t do that. Don’t do that, officer. Don’t do that. Don’t do that. Don’t do that. Do not do that! I’m telling you I am OK!” Chamberlain says from behind the closed door.
“I don't give a fuck, nigger!” the officer can be heard shouting.
“I’m telling you I’m OK!” Chamberlain responds.
“I don’t give a fuck, nigger!” the officer repeated.
That officer was later identified as Stephen Hart. He was fired from the force in 2013 but denied that he used the slur.
Rob Riley, president of the White Plains Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing “federal investigation with the department.”
More than three years later, the Department of Justice has not concluded its investigation. But Kenneth Chamberlain Jr. believes reform can begin now.
“I tell people that this fight is bigger than Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. I tell people that my father would not want me to be anti–law enforcement. Because he was law enforcement. He would want me to try to fix what the problem is,” he said. “And the problem is that we have a system in place that places no value on black or brown life. If we really want to change the system, it’s not about marching, rallying, protesting. It’s about changing laws.”