Chamberlain v. White Plains: A Crack in the Wall for Police Killings?

Photograph of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. – Public Domain

On Monday, June 1, the U.S. Second Circuit in New York substantially reversed a district court’s ruling on appeal in the case of the police killing of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., in which the lower court had found mainly for the defendants.

Amid the turmoil and horror of the George Floyd and Breanna Taylor murders, the 50-page opinion in Chamberlain v. City of White Plains provides a glimmer of hope that justice may ultimately be served in this case of extrajudicial killing. Imagine: Could justice for one be justice for all?

To be sure, a long and winding legal road lies ahead for the plaintiff, Chamberlain’s son, Kenneth Jr. For now, the circuit court has remanded key parts of the case back to the district court for further proceedings. The defendants–including Officer Anthony Carelli, who delivered the fatal gunshots to Chamberlain, and six other officers who had a hand in the incident—may reargue the same or different points in seeking summary judgment, or the case may eventually go back to trial. Alternatively, the city could offer to settle. Unless that happens, hoped-for justice could be years away.

To read the decision by Judges Robert D. Sack and Peter W. Hall is to revisit the details of a horrific hour-long assault and execution that almost makes Floyd’s death seem incidental—not that it was. In the early morning hours of November 19, 2011, the 68-year-old Chamberlain, African American, a Vietnam veteran and retired correctional officer, accidentally set off his “Life Aid” emergency medical-alert pager. White Plains police and an ambulance were dispatched to Chamberlain’s city-owned apartment. What unfolded next was a chain of escalating tensions fueled by police arrogance and racial bias. At one point recordings of the incident detect an officer referring to Chamberlain using the N-word, although the defendants dispute this interpretation.

Despite being given information—not least of all by Chamberlain himself, as well as by a Life Aid operator, Chamberlain’s niece, who was in the hallway outside the apartment, and his sister, who was on the phone from North Carolina–that Chamberlain was not in need of assistance and had accidentally triggered his device, the cops decided sometime not long after arriving that they would get into the apartment, no matter what. They banged on his door loudly and made threats about having to break down the door if Chamberlain wouldn’t let them in. They called for backup and got a dozen officers in SWAT gear. When they used a crowbar-like tool to pry open the door a few inches, Chamberlain repeatedly stuck a cooking knife through the opening to try to keep them away. All the while, Chamberlain was shouting for his life, shouting at the police to leave, that he didn’t need help, that it was his home and he didn’t want them inside, that they were there to kill him. And so they were.

After an hour, within moments of tearing the apartment door off its hinges, the officers tased him, shot him with a beanbag shotgun, and then administered the fatal shots with a handgun. Their ludicrous defense for the final act was that Chamberlain, who had mental and medical issues, sprung back after being felled by the beanbag pellets and charged them.

Although focused on legal issues rather than settling questions of fact and evidence, the Second Circuit decision left few details to the imagination, and, reading between the lines, was unsparing in its criticism of the police officers’ actions. The most important legal issues revolved around (1) whether the police potentially violated Chamberlain’s Fourth Amendment rights by forcing their way into his apartment, (2) whether the police were entitled to “qualified immunity,” and (3) the use of excessive force.

On the first point, the defendants had argued that “exigent circumstances”—that is, their belief that Chamberlain was in imminent danger (not from themselves, mind you!) and needed emergency assistance—made their entry necessary. The Second Circuit would have none of it:

“[W]e conclude that a reasonable, experienced officer would not have determined there was probable cause to believe that Chamberlain needed urgent medical attention. The officers outside of his apartment knew that the Life Alert system had been activated accidentally. The Life Aid operator informed the police dispatcher that Chamberlain was not in need of medical assistance. And Chamberlain himself firmly and repeatedly informed the officers that he had not called for help and was not in need of assistance of any kind, let alone urgent medical aid.” [Emphasis added.]

“Despite Chamberlain’s rising anxiety about the officers’ presence and aggressive actions, the officers escalated the confrontation by making derisive comments and by declining to permit or arrange for Chamberlain to speak with members of his immediate family,” the judges wrote.

“And when, eventually, the officers entered Chamberlain’s apartment, they did so not with a gurney and paramedics, or other equipment or personnel related to a possible health emergency, but with a Taser, a beanbag shotgun, and handguns. Instead of treating Chamberlain as a critically ill patient, the officers acted as though he were a criminal suspect.”

Thus, the court firmly rejected the “exigent” argument and opened the door to allowing the case to be argued, in future proceedings, that an illegal, unwarranted entry took place in violation of Chamberlain’s Fourth Amendment rights.

In the district court, the defendants had prevailed on the question of qualified immunity, essentially giving a pass to the cops’ actions; in the judges’ words, qualified immunity “reflects the recognition that, in order to ensure public safety, police officers require sufficient protection to enable them to perform their duties without fear of unwarranted private litigation.” Partly on procedural grounds, and also citing the first part of the decision, the Circuit Court reversed the prior decision.

The finding on unlawful entry also informed the judges’ decision on the third issue, the use of excessive force, specifically limited to the use of the beanbag shotgun. (The question of the fatal gunshots was not argued in this appeal.) Because of both the potential Fourth Amendment violation and the court’s rejection of the qualified immunity argument, the judges ruled that the issue of excessive force could be argued on remand: “The officers’ unlawful entry into Chamberlain’s apartment, if borne out by proven facts, may affect the balancing of factors bearing on whether the officers’ use of force was objectively unreasonable under the circumstances.”

On several smaller issues, the circuit court upheld parts of the lower court’s ruling, but make no mistake: this was a significant victory for the Chamberlain family. If I live to see the murderers of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., Atatiana Jefferson, Breanna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others receive the appropriate punishment, I will rest a little easier knowing that the arc of the moral universe does, maybe just a bit, bend toward justice. There’s a ray of hope.

Fred Baumgarten is a writer living in western Massachusetts.