Legal Battle Reopened Over 2011 Police Shooting of Elderly Black Ex-Marine in NY

We look at a major development in the case of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., a Black man killed in his own apartment in White Plains, New York, during a police confrontation in 2011, after he accidentally triggered his medical alert pendant. On Monday, the 2nd Circuit of Appeals ruled a federal judge was wrong to dismiss parts of a lawsuit against the police for excessive use of force. “My family and I are extremely overjoyed that the original ruling was vacated,” says Kenneth Chamberlain Jr. “I think that people are now coming together, and they’re saying that extrajudicial killings and summary executions of unarmed Black men, women and children is no longer going to be tolerated.” We also speak with the family’s attorney. “Most people would be able to agree that when you’re at home sleeping and you haven’t committed any crime, that you wouldn’t expect that the police are going to break your door down and kill you — in particular if they’re responding for a medical call where you think that they’re there to help you,” says Mayo Bartlett.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to a major development in a case of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., who was an African American man killed in his own apartment in White Plains, New York, during a police confrontation in 2011 when he accidentally triggered his medical alert pendant. It was, oh, at 5:00 in the morning. He rolled over on it, and it called the LifeAid company. Well, on Monday, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a federal judge was wrong to dismiss parts of a lawsuit against the police for excessive use of force.

The tragic case occurred early on the morning of November 19, 2011, when Kenneth Chamberlain, a 68-year-old former marine with a heart condition, accidentally pressed the button on his medical alert system while sleeping. It was 5:22 in the morning. Responding to the alert, from the company calling police, the White Plains police officers arrived at Chamberlain’s apartment in a public housing complex. It was shortly after 5 a.m. By the time the police left the apartment, just after 7 a.m., Kenneth Chamberlain was dead, shot twice in the chest by a police officer inside his own 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, then with live ammunition.

In a moment, we’ll be joined by Kenneth Chamberlain’s son and by the attorney for the Chamberlain family. But first we want to turn to the remarkable series of audio and video recordings from the morning of Mr. Chamberlain’s death. Before we play these excerpts, we want to warn you they contain disturbing footage. Much of the audio was recorded by Chamberlain’s LifeAid medical alert device. The video was recorded from the police Taser gun used to shoot him before he was shot dead. After the White Plains police arrived at Kenneth Chamberlain’s apartment, Chamberlain told an operator from LifeAid that he was not sick, that he didn’t need assistance.

LIFEAID OPERATOR: This is your help center for LifeAid, Mr. Chamberlain. Do you need help?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: 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!

LIFEAID OPERATOR: Everything’s all right, sir?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: No, it’s not all right! I need help! The White Plains Police Department are banging on my door!

AMY GOODMAN: After Kenneth Chamberlain told LifeAid he was OK but afraid of the police at the door, the LifeAid operator attempted to cancel the call for police assistance. Chamberlain went on to tell the LifeAid operator that the police had drawn their guns and were attempting to break down his door. Again, listen closely.

LIFEAID OPERATOR: Officers, this is LifeAid. Are you inside Mr. Chamberlain’s home?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: They’re breaking in my door! They’re breaking in my door!

LIFEAID OPERATOR: Mr. Chamberlain, I heard you say they’re breaking in your door. Are you OK?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: My door.

LIFEAID OPERATOR: Mr. Chamberlain, are you OK?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: I’m fine!

LIFEAID OPERATOR: OK. You pressed your medical button. That’s why the officers are there. Can you go to the door and speak to them?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: I’m not opening up the door. They’ve got their guns out! They have their guns out!

LIFEAID OPERATOR: OK. Do you have weapon, Mr. Chamberlain?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: I [inaudible] weapons. I am just protecting myself.

LIFEAID OPERATOR: OK. They’re not there to hurt you. I’m here on the line.

POLICE OFFICER: Mr. Chamberlain, we’re not here to help — hurt you. We’re here to give you a hand, help you out.

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: I’m OK! I told you I was OK! [inaudible] I’m OK! I’m fine! Leave me alone! I’m fine!

AMY GOODMAN: “Leave me alone,” says Kenneth Chamberlain. One of the officers, Stephen Hart, was accused of hurling a racial slur, the N-word, at Chamberlain during the incident. Listen carefully to this audio, released by the White Plains Police Department. You can hear the Officer Hart banging on Chamberlain’s window. Chamberlain repeatedly says, “Don’t do that. I’m OK.” The officer responds, yes, by using the N-word. Listen closely.

OFFICER STEPHEN HART: Mr. Chamberlain!

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: 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’m OK!

OFFICER STEPHEN HART: I don’t give a [bleep], nigger!

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: I’m telling you I’m OK!

OFFICER STEPHEN HART: [inaudible]

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: I’m telling you I’m OK.

AMY GOODMAN: A video camera on the police Taser gun recorded the next sequence. You can hear Kenneth Chamberlain say the police have stun guns and shotguns. He then predicts the police will kill him. Again, a warning: This contains disturbing footage.

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: They have stun guns and shotguns! [inaudible]

POLICE OFFICER: Mr. Chamberlain! Mr. Chamberlain!

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: They’ve come to kill me with that, because I have a bad heart.

AMY GOODMAN: Mr. Chamberlain says, “I have a bad heart.” While the police were threatening to break down his door, Chamberlain’s sister called the police — she was contacted by LifeAid — in an attempt to defuse the situation. Soon after, she was assured the police would not shoot her brother. But that is just what happened. Police video shows the moment police broke down his door and shot him with a Taser. TV viewers will see a few quick glimpses of Kenneth Chamberlain, the 68-year-old man, who was wearing boxer shorts and no shirt. He had been woken up. This video was recorded by a camera on the police Taser. Listen closely. You can hear the sound of the Taser.

POLICE OFFICER: You got it?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: Shoot! Shoot me! No! Shoot me! Shoot me!

POLICE OFFICER: Need another cartridge?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: Shoot me!

AMY GOODMAN: You can actually see the electricity shooting Kenneth Chamberlain. The video cuts out at this point. Within minutes, Kenneth Chamberlain was shot dead by the police who entered his home. This horrific story is told in the recent feature film The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Ken Chamberlain’s son, Kenneth Chamberlain Jr., who’s been fighting for justice in his father’s death since 2011. And we’re joined by the family’s attorney, Mayo Bartlett.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! This killing that we have covered for years, Kenneth Chamberlain, the significance of what has just taken place? I mean, I share our condolences once again, after all of these years, and I’m sure you are reliving this this week as we deal with the George Floyd case. But in the midst of all of this, a judge has overturned a recent — the decision that threw out the lawsuit you had filed.

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN JR.: Well, thank you, Amy, first, for having us on the show. And just listening to that audio, I’ve kind of had to kind of regain my composure. It’s been a while since I’ve heard all of the audio like that.

But we’ve maintained all along, as the Constitution said, that it is the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects from unreasonable search and seizure, and that no warrant shall issue without probable cause. And this is what this fight has been about, you know, what these officers did on November 19, 2011, when my father inadvertently triggered his LifeAid pendant, and, in doing so, the police responded and ended up killing him.

Now, with this coming out around the killing of George Floyd and the rallying, the protesting, its significance, I can’t really speak to. But what I can say is that what you’re seeing happening around the world right now is not just about the killing of George Floyd. It’s about the killing of Tamir Rice. It’s about the killing of Ramarley Graham. It’s about the killing of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. and the countless other names that I can’t even begin to mention.

So, we’re pleased that these appellate judges vacated the original ruling, and we look forward to our day in court. And hopefully, this time around, we will get a fair trial.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mayo Bartlett, I wanted to ask you the significance of the 2nd Circuit Court decision. This has been now a case, nine years now, that has been, in one way or another, in the courts. And the fact that they claim that the lower court did not — erred in not saying that the police were unlawful in their entry into Mr. Chamberlain’s home. Here, a former marine, sleeping peacefully in his own home, ends up dead.

MAYO BARTLETT: Yes. Well, thank you very much.

You know, it was always our position that there was never a reason for Mr. Chamberlain to have had his home invaded in the first place. And it wasn’t necessarily the role of the court to make that determination, but it certainly was the role of the court to allow us to at least argue that to a jury so that a jury could make a reasonable determination one way or the other. We were prevented from doing that. So, as a consequence, it’s been our position all along that there was no full and fair trial on the merits of this case. And we’re thankful now.

And it happens to even be something that unites people on the left and the right, because when you look at people who are on the right that you might consider to be extremists, one of the primary things that they talk about is the sanctity of a person’s home. And you’re right, whether it’s the right to bear arms, but certainly the right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure. So this is something where I would believe that most people would be able to agree, that when you’re at home sleeping and you haven’t committed any crime, that you wouldn’t expect that the police are going to break your door down and kill you, in particular if they’re responding for a medical call where you’d think that they’re there to help you.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back to this discussion. We’re talking to attorney Mayo Bartlett and Kenneth Chamberlain Jr. He is the son of Ken Chamberlain, a former marine, who was at home sleeping, turned over on his life alert necklace. He had a heart condition. The LifeAid people couldn’t reach him and called the police. They came in for a wellness check and ended up shooting him dead. We’ll be back with them in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” by composer Joel Thompson, performed by the Sphinx, led by conductor Eugene Rogers. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to a film. We’re speaking with Kenneth Chamberlain Jr., his father shot dead by White Plains police in 2011, and Mayo Bartlett, the attorney for the family. On Monday, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a federal judge was wrong to dismiss parts of a lawsuit against the police for excessive use of force. A new feature film, The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain, tells the story of what happened the night White Plains police came to Chamberlain’s apartment. This is the trailer.

CANDACE WADE: [played by Anika Noni Rose] Mr. Chamberlain, this is Candace Wade with Life Guard Medical Alerts. This line is being recorded. We just received an activation from your pendant. Do you have an emergency? I’m not getting a response from you. I’m going to dispatch emergency services now.

OFFICER ROSSI: [played by Enrico Natale] White Plains police. We’re here for a welfare check.

OFFICER JACKSON: [played by Ben Marten] Open this door!

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN SR.: [played by Frankie Faison] You’re not coming into my home! Help me! Help me! I need help!

AMY GOODMAN: Kenneth Chamberlain was played by Frankie Faison in a remarkable film that just recently came out. Kenneth Chamberlain Jr., your thoughts, as this country surges with uprisings all over, not only the country, but the world, this decision coming down in the midst of this?

KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN JR.: Again, first, let me just say that, of course, my family and I are extremely overjoyed that the original ruling was vacated.

I think that — and as far as what’s going on in the country, I think that people are now coming together, and they’re saying that extrajudicial killings and summary executions of unarmed Black men, women and children is no longer going to be tolerated. I mean, what we have been witnessing for decades are crimes against humanity. So, to see such a diverse group of people coming together, saying that they’re no longer going to tolerate this, this is beautiful. And the fact that they made this ruling, if I can use my platform to help effect positive change, then that’s what I’m going to do.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mayo Bartlett, I wanted to ask you — the Supreme Court is slated to decide very soon whether it will take up cases that deal with qualified immunity. Could you talk — what is qualified immunity, and how does it affect this particular case?

MAYO BARTLETT: Qualified immunity is a doctrine which the Supreme Court actually created, which gives police an extraordinary shield for their conduct. And it’s a shielding that no other person in the country has, says that unless we can find, basically, that no other reasonable officer anywhere could have done what this officer did, that person is going to be found to be exonerated. You’re going to say that their conduct is absolved. And it requires a tremendous burden on the part of people trying to bring these cases.

The other thing that it does is it deters lots of lawyers from taking these cases, because you dedicate a lot of time and a lot of money into these cases, and it may be four or five years — or, in our case, we’re here nine years, almost 10 years later, without having a resolution. And sometimes these qualified immunity decisions don’t come until fairly late in the game, after you’ve already invested a lot of time and money. So it’s a deterrent for people.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, no officer was charged in this case? I mean, there were many officers, including Officer Hart, who shot Kenneth Chamberlain dead, undisputed?

MAYO BARTLETT: Absolutely. And one of the things we’ve asked for from the beginning is for an independent investigator. And when you look at these cases, there should also, in my estimation, be a change in the grand jury system. The grand jury should not be an arm of the prosecutor. It should be independent, equally accessible from the defense as well as civil sides and also for the prosecutor, should not be on the third or fourth floor of a DA’s office. And you should be able to see what happened in a grand jury. It shouldn’t be secret. There’s no need for it to be secret. If there is a need, then you can make an application to a court for a protective order. But we believe that needs to change, as well as the disciplinary procedures against police. Where there’s been a finding of misconduct, that also should be public and readily available. You should not have to go to the police department to find out what misconduct your officers may have engaged in.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s no time limit on murder. Why can’t the officer be charged now?

MAYO BARTLETT: Well, you know, it’s interesting. There’s been no jeopardy that’s attached. The officer certainly could be charged now. And you also have to —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you, though, Mayo Bartlett, attorney for the family of Kenneth Chamberlain, and especially Ken Chamberlain Jr. himself.

That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.