Strange Justice: Police Cleared After Killing Elderly Black Man Over Medical Alert

Posted on June 1, 2012


Here’s one I don’t understand.  According to CNN, a 68-year-old, fragile man, Kenneth Chamberlain, was in his own apartment when his medical alert device went off accidentally.  First responders were notified that the alert device was going off and Chamberlain needed medical help.  Medical help.  Keep that in mind as you read on.  An ambulance was dispatched, but the police arrived first, and that’s where things went horribly wrong.

Chamberlain is on tape, repeatedly telling the medical alert company that he does not need help, and that the police are at his door.  He is heard telling the police to go away.  “I did not call them and I am not sick,” he says.  So what we have is a patient, his alert device has gone off, it is a mistake and he says so.

The police were supposed to make sure he was okay, right?  He says he’s all right.  He was not suspected of a crime, he was a patient refusing medical assistance (aren’t we allowed to do that?).  To make matters worse in this case, Chamberlain’s niece was in the hallway with the police, asking to speak to him; they refused.  Remember, this is a medical alert, not some kind of hostage crisis.

The police spent some 20 minutes doggedly trying to get in.  Police video shows that when they finally force the door, Chamberlain is standing there, wearing only shorts, and very upset (I would be too, if I was not having an emergency, asked the first responders to please leave, and they broke down my door after 20 excruciating minutes of me wondering what the hell is going on out there, and not being allowed to talk to my family member).  The police fire a Taser at Mr. Chamberlain.  The police will later say that he came at them with a knife.  Conveniently, everything after the Taser  is not on video.  The police say they then fired bean bags, and then bullets at Mr. Chamberlain, with fatal results.

Did the police have some kind of right or obligation to burst into his home?  I don’t think so.  But in a pious little public statement, David Chong, White Plains public safety commissioner, told reporters: “We are obligated as a police department never to walk away from an emergency and we’re not going to.”  He added that the department would be reviewing the entire case and how they deal with emotionally disturbed people in the future.

Wow, Dave.  There is so much wrong with everything in those statements.  First off, Mr. Chamberlain was not having an emergency.  The medical alert device which was supposed to help save his life had gone off accidentally, with the end result that your ham-handed police killed him.  Hint, Dave:  the police are not supposed to go around killing people for a medical alert.  Mr. Chamberlain declined assistance.  That’s not probable cause to break down a door and shoot someone.   As for your little dig about “emotionally disturbed people,” well, dang, wouldn’t you be pretty emotionally disturbed if you repeatedly, over the course of nearly a half-hour, asked the police to leave you alone, and they just kept trying harder and harder to get into your house, finally breaking your door in?  News flash, Dave:  a door being broken in by multiple, armed guys is noisy, violent, and scary to anyone.  This was a frail 68-year-old.  The way he reacted is not surprising.

So the Grand Jury heard testimony from dozens of witnesses, saw the tapes, heard the audio, and declined to prosecute the shooter.  Maybe under the rules of proximate cause, this might have been a legally appropriate decision, but I am more concerned with how we got to the point of “needing” to shoot a medical patient in the first place.  At what point did any of the police officers demonstrate any common sense here?  Who among them said, “Hey, the guy’s niece is here, why don’t we get her to talk to him and make sure it’s really just a false alarm?”  Or, “You know, he’s getting more and more upset.  Maybe we just need to back off and wait for EMS to get here.”  Remember, they were called for a medical alert.

Oh, one other little detail.  Wonder why it is that the part of the audio in which one of the officers referred to Mr. Chamberlain as a “nigger” didn’t make it into the Grand Jury?  A little inflammatory?  Or maybe it gives the ring of truth to the bereaved family’s belief that Mr. Chamberlain was treated differently because he was black, and lived in a housing project.

Well, these cops are not out of the woods yet.  The case is set for a Federal review.

Originally published at The Color of Lila.

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