Editor's note: Don't miss Soledad O'Brien's report on the death of Kenneth Chamberlain at 8 and 10 p.m. ET on AC360°.
The call for help was not unusual. A 68-year-old veteran with a heart condition had tripped a medical alert device he keeps around his neck in the early hours of a winter morning. The company that services the device informed a 911 operator the device had been triggered and asked for an ambulance to go to the address.
But police arrived at Kenneth Chamberlain's apartment first. And hours later Chamberlain was dead, not from his heart condition, but from two bullets fired by White Plains, NY police officer Anthony Carelli.
Now Kenneth Chamberlain’s family has joined civil rights activists alleging this case raises similar questions to that of Trayvon Martin who was shot dead by a neighborhood watch volunteer: Do police or civilians trying to enforce the law shoot first and ask questions later when they are dealing with African Americans?
Officer Carelli, is white ,and Kenneth Chamberlain is black. Chamberlain lived in a public housing complex in a rundown section of White Plains, New York where law enforcement sources said only that he was "known to them," from previous calls to police but won’t say what they were for. Chamberlain was never arrested by police, who note there was a black police officer on the scene the night he was shot and say that Chamberlain came at them with knives in hand. Shots were fired only after police tried to subdue him with a taser and bean-bag rounds.
What makes Chamberlain's supporters cast off those complexities, and call this an incident of “racial profiling,” is a rare trove of video and audio evidence they were shown by prosecutors taking the case to a grand jury. There is footage from a hallway security camera, audio recorded by the medical alert device and video from a camera on the taser they used to subdue him before the shooting began.
The White Plains District Attorney allowed the family to review the audio and video tapes. "I saw them with their guns out because you have to open the door just a little bit in order to look out into the door. So at that point he said, 'oh you got your guns drawn. You come here to kill me. I'm a 68-year-old man with a heart condition.' So at that point I know they had to see him and he had to see them," said his son, Kenneth, Jr." "I really started hearing fear in his voice." Chamberlain says his father does not appear violent and has no weapons in hand, though he does see him throw a silver object through the partly opened door at one point.
Kenneth Jr. also heard a police officer say the n-word on the audio tape, a fact confirmed by law enforcement sources. And there was a witness to the police use of force in trying to enter Chamberlain's apartment. His niece and neighbor, Tanya Greenhill, ran down from her apartment to tell police the medical alert device had been triggered accidently and to please let his family talk to him instead of bursting in. "They kept telling him open the door and he kept telling them to please leave him alone and go away. He didn't need the assistance he was OK and they kept telling him to open the door," she recalls them saying as she stood outside in her pajamas.
White Plains Public Safety Commissioner David Chong later told reporters that police had tried to subdue Chamberlain with a taser, then bean bag rounds before firing. He said his office is cooperating with a grand jury investigation, but would not say whether Carelli continues to be on patrol. Carelli's lawyers say he is a decorated officer who followed procedures.
Police will discuss their guidelines on subduing someone who is threatening or emotionally disturbed, if Chamberlain was in fact acting irrationally. A law enforcement source said the medical alert company said only that the device had been triggered and gave his address which typically sends an ambulance and patrol car to the scene. Medical records obtained by CNN confirm Chamberlain did have a severe heart condition, which his family claims is proof he could not have been that threatening. CNN also obtained an autopsy report which shows the bullet entered through the upper side of his right arm, which could indicate he was shot either with his arm down or while turning away. There is no way to know for sure because the taser camera turns off before the shooting begins.
His family has joined leaders of the NAACP at rallies, demanding that investigators release all evidence on the case and arrest the officer. They do not believe Chamberlain could have been threatening enough to justify the use of force and alleged that this is a case where race trumped logic, that force was used where calm was needed. The facts will sort out exactly what happened in this shooting over time, but even Carelli’s lawyer acknowledged that the family may feel dissatisfied whatever the result of the inquiry.
"We trust that the grand jury will rightfully determine that Officer Carelli's actions, while perhaps not understandable or acceptable to the family members, attorneys and other emissaries of the Chamberlain family, were justified under our laws," Carelli's lawyers, Andrew C. Quinn and John D'Alessandro, said in a written statement.
Chamberlain's lawyers have already made up their minds. "I think that what happened that night is that Mr Chamberlain happened to live in public housing and we had police officers who gave him a command to open the door and when he didn't acknowledge their command, really became very agitated and angry because he was defying what they asked him to do," says Chamberlan attorney Randy McLaughlin. "They forgot that they were there to deal with a medical emergency. You have here a 68-year-old man who has served this country in Vietnam for six years, and a 20-year retired member of the Department of Corrections for Westchester County who died, but didn't have to die."