Deadly po­lice re­sponse to med­i­cal alert fo­cus of trial

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Tom Hays

A fam­ily's $21 mil­lion wrong­ful death suit filed after a men­tally ill man was killed by po­lice is set for trial.

When Ken­neth Cham­ber­lain Sr.’s med­i­cal alert pen­dant ac­ci­den­tally went off five years ago, the 68-year-old told po­lice who showed up that he was fine, barred them from en­ter­ing his apart­ment and re­peat­edly asked them to go away.

They didn’t. That set off a tense, 90-minute stand­off that ended with the men­tally ill, for­mer Marine, shot dead.

What lived on is a dis­pute over whether the black vic­tim was an armed threat when a white of­fi­cer fired his gun — the ques­tion cen­tral to a fed­eral civil case set to go to trial this week. Open­ing state­ments are sched­uled for Wed­nes­day.

The deadly 2011 en­counter at Cham­ber­lain’s apart­ment in sub­ur­ban White Plains — much of it cap­tured on au­dio­tape that will be played for ju­rors — was a pre­cur­sor to the na­tional de­bate over use of force by po­lice in com­mu­ni­ties of color and in re­sponse to calls in­volv­ing emo­tion­ally dis­turbed peo­ple.

Cham­ber­lain’s case com­bines both is­sues, said his son, Ken­neth Cham­ber­lain Jr., whose fam­ily filed a $21 mil­lion wrong­ful death law­suit that went for­ward after a grand jury de­clined to in­dict the shooter.

The son calls his fa­ther a vic­tim of “sys­tem­atic racism” by law en­force­ment.

If the of­fi­cers had been con­fronted with the same sit­u­a­tion in a more af­flu­ent neigh­bor­hood, “It would have been ‘Sorry to dis­turb you,’ and they would have been gone,” he said.

To bol­ster that point, lawyers for the fam­ily un­suc­cess­fully sought to in­tro­duce tape of an of­fi­cer, later fired, us­ing a racial slur dur­ing the con­fronta­tion. The of­fi­cer, Steven Hart, died last year in an auto ac­ci­dent.

The plain­tiffs have also ac­cused White Plains’ Department of Pub­lic Safety of fail­ing to prop­erly train of­fi­cers in how to deal with emo­tion­ally dis­turbed peo­ple.

New York City was con­fronted with the same crit­i­cism last month after a white of­fi­cer fa­tally shot a 66-year-old black woman di­ag­nosed with schizophre­nia. The woman, Deb­o­rah Dan­ners, lunged at the of­fi­cer with a base­ball bat in a bed­room in her Bronx home, ac­cord­ing to an ini­tial po­lice ac­count. Mayor Bill de Bla­sio and po­lice of­fi­cials called the death avoid­able.

In the Cham­ber­lain case, the of­fi­cers be­haved “like a SWAT team,” said one of the plain­tiff lawyers, Ran­dolph McLaugh­lin.

“They weren’t trained to de-es­ca­late, only to go for­ward,” he said.

Lawyers for An­thony Carelli, the of­fi­cer who fired the fa­tal shot, and the city of White Plains did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. In court pa­pers, the de­fense has in­sisted the shoot­ing was jus­ti­fied, say­ing Carelli “used deadly force only as a last re­sort.”

The of­fi­cers have also said they per­sisted in try­ing to coax Cham­ber­lain into open­ing the door so they could make sure he was safe, which the de­fense says was re­quired by department pol­icy be­fore they could leave.

At the time of the shoot­ing, Cham­ber­lain was liv­ing alone and suf­fer­ing from bipo­lar dis­or­der, arthri­tis and res­pi­ra­tory ill­ness, con­di­tions that prompted his fam­ily to give him a LifeAid med­i­cal alert de­vice in case he needed help.

On Nov. 19, 2011, Cham­ber­lain ac­ci­den­tally set off the alert, prompt­ing po­lice to come to his door. In tran­scripts of record­ings of the en­counter cap­tured by a LifeAid help cen­ter, he can be heard telling the of­fi­cers he didn’t want them there.

“Go home to your wives and chil­dren,” he said.

As the of­fi­cers per­sisted in try­ing to coax him into open­ing the door, Cham­ber­lain sounded more ag­i­tated and dis­ori­ented, say­ing at one point that he was in touch with “the Pres­i­dent and Vice Pres­i­dent Bi­den.”

Po­lice say he poked a knife through a crack in the door, re­peated, “honor, honor, honor” and then warned, “First one through the door, I’m gonna kill.”

Backup of­fi­cers, in­clud­ing Carelli, were called in to re­move the door. Once in­side, they sought to sub­due Cham­ber­lain with a stun gun and a bean bag weapon.

In a de­po­si­tion, Carelli claimed it didn’t work, and he watched as the vic­tim came within feet of a sergeant with the knife raised be­fore he fired two rounds.

“He wasn’t stand­ing straight up and gin­gerly walk­ing to (the sergeant),” said the of­fi­cer, who’s ex­pected to tes­tify at trial. “He was charg­ing.”

The plain­tiffs counter that Cham­ber­lain’s health was too frag­ile for him to put up that kind of fight. They also say bal­lis­tic and other ev­i­dence shows that Cham­ber­lain was on the floor and help­less when he was shot.

Ei­ther way, the vic­tim’s son be­lieves his fa­ther could see it com­ing.

“To lis­ten to that au­dio, it brings tears to my eyes, be­cause I hear the fear,” he said. “He be­lieves that they’re go­ing to do some­thing to him and that’s ex­actly what hap­pens. They killed him.”

FAM­ILY OF KEN­NETH CHAM­BER­LAIN SR. VIA AP

This un­dated photo pro­vided by his fam­ily shows Ken­neth Cham­ber­lain Sr. When the po­lice ar­rived at his sub­ur­ban Westchester County home five years ago after a mis­taken call for help, Cham­ber­lain barred the door and re­peat­edly told them to go away. The con­fronta­tion ended 90 min­utes later with the death of Cham­ber­lain, 68, a for­mer Marine. The tragic out­come was pre­cur­sor to the na­tional de­bate over how po­lice treat com­mu­ni­ties of color and con­cern over how they re­spond to calls in­volv­ing emo­tion­ally dis­turbed peo­ple.

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