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Ryan Devereaux in New York, Monday 2nd July 2012 21:39
The family of a 68-year-old marine veteran fatally gunned down in his home has filed a $21m lawsuit against the police officers responsible for his death.
Kenneth Chamberlain's son, also Kenneth, appeared with his attorneys outside Manhattan's federal courthouse to announce a federal civil rights suit against the eight White Plains police officers involved in the shooting, as well as the city itself and the housing authority responsible for the building where the elder Chamberlain died.
Earlier this year a Westchester grand jury declined to indict Anthony Carelli, the police officer who shot Chamberlain twice in November. The shooting has resulted in an ongoing federal civil rights investigation.
Authorities have claimed Chamberlain was acting irrationally the morning he was killed and threatened police officers with knives. His family maintains that he was an elderly man with severe health problems, who died because police – responding to a medical call – refused to leave the scene after he asked them to and further escalated the encounter with taunting and racial slurs.
The shooting has inflamed criticism of the department as racially biased. Chamberlain was African American, while Carelli, who is white, has faced separate allegations of racially motivated violence.
"Make no mistake, my father was murdered," Chamberlain Jr told reporters on Monday.
On November 19, Chamberlain, who had a serious heart condition, tripped a medical alert pendant he wore around his neck. The company that supplied the pendant dispatched an ambulance to his public housing complex. Three officers already facing claims for alleged civil rights abuses – Carelli included – also responded to the scene. A little over an hour after they arrived Chamberlain had been seared with a Taser, shot with bean bags fired from a shotgun and ultimately killed by a bullet that tore through his lungs.
Audio recordings of Chamberlain's conversations with the medical company the morning of his death depict a man who repeatedly told police to leave – stating he did not need medical attention – and predicted he would be killed. Throughout the episode Chamberlain seemed to become increasingly afraid and agitated, and could be heard calling out to "Mr President" that he was under attack.
The police department argued that Carelli fired in defence of himself and his fellow officers, and acted within department guidelines. According to the department, Chamberlain charged at officers with a knife raised above his head when he was shot. Attorneys for the Chamberlain family argue his entry and exit wounds rule out such a scenario.
"It's impossible," said attorney Randolph M McLaughlin.
In May Westchester district attorney Janet DiFore said there was "no reasonable cause" to indict Carelli, who later this month will appear in court to face charges stemming from claims made by two Arab Americans who say the officer beat them and called them "ragheads" after he arrested them.
Following DiFore's decision the White Plains police department released over 200 pages of documents, recordings and video of the encounter. In a phone call with the medical company recorded after the police arrived to his home, officers are heard banging on Chamberlain's window.
"Do not do that. I'm telling you all, I'm telling you all I'm OK," Chamberlain called out to the officers. A voice then responds: "I don't give a fuck, nigger."
DiFore said the racial slur was used to "distract" Chamberlain but added: "The use of [racial epithets] by anyone, let alone a public servant who is sworn to uphold the public good, is intolerable."
Chamberlain's family and their legal representatives sent a letter to US attorney-general Eric Holder's office, accusing the White Plains police department of acting "in contravention of Chamberlain's constitutional rights", and called for a criminal investigation. Shortly after, the US attorney's office for the southern district of New York said it would review the case. The investigation is still ongoing, according to Chamberlain's attorneys, who declined to comment on the details of the probe.
Monday's lawsuit accuses the eight officers who responded to Chamberlain's home of violating his constitutional rights under the fourth, fifth and fourteenth amendments. The suit singles out Carelli and two others – who have each faced federal civil rights lawsuits resulting from excessive force and racial slur allegations – as part of an allegedly problematic Neighborhood Conditions Unit.
According to the complaint, Chamberlain's death was the result of White Plains' policy of retaining officers without properly training them or screening new recruits for "racial animus" or a "propensity for violence". The White Plains housing authority is also named in the suit for providing the police department with keys to residences without notifying or securing the consent of tenants.
For Chamberlain Jr, the last several months have been exceedingly difficult. "If I get an hour of sleep a day, I'm lucky," he said. "I'm just constantly thinking about this."
Chamberlain Jr says his father's death has caused him to think about issues of police violence in ways he never had before. On his first Father's Day without his dad, Chamberlain Jr joined thousands of others in New York City to march against the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk policy. He was joined in the demonstration by the parents of Ramarley Graham, an 18-year-old Bronx teen who was shot to death by an NYPD officer while standing unarmed in his bathroom.
"A lot of times you don't realize the severity of the issues around stop-and-frisk, police misconduct and brutality. Sometimes you don't really pay attention to it as much as you should until it's actually in your backyard," and then, he said, "It's like the light clicks on and you're seeing everything that's going on. Everything. It's a pandemic."
One of the most difficult challenges Chamberlain Jr says he has faced is explaining the death of his father to his 10-year-old daughter.
"She continually asks the same question over and over again," he said. "'But why did they kill Pop-pop?'"
Chamberlain Jr says he hopes the lawsuit and the federal inquiry will one day help him to provide her with a response, but presently he said, "I can't give her an answer."