A federal judge has refused to dismiss civil rights claims over the wrongful shooting death of a disturbed 68-year-old man by White Plains police officers who responded to his apartment after receiving a call from the Life Aid medical alert system.
Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. was on psychiatric medication when he refused to allow the officers to enter his apartment in November 2011. The police entered anyway to confront Chamberlain, who was armed with a knife and making threats.
The officers, who say Chamberlain could not be subdued, twice used a stun gun on him, hit him with beanbags fired from a gun and shot him in the chest twice. But Chamberlain’s family say the officers made a bad situation worse by escalating the confrontation and causing his death.
In a case where there are audio and video recordings of the incident, including a recording by the Life Aid operator, the City of White Plains and its defendant officers moved to dismiss, but Southern District Judge Cathy Seibel (See Profile) rejected the motion as to the central claims in Chamberlain v. City of White Plains, 12-CV-5142. However, Seibel did find that officers had the right to enter the apartment because Chamberlain, who was hallucinating, posed a danger to himself and possibly others.
At around 5 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 19, 2011, Chamberlain’s Life Aid device was accidentally triggered, activating a two-way communication device that began recording what took place between his apartment at the Winbrook Houses development and the Life Aid center.
The operator could hear Chamberlain, a Marine veteran, stating, “You can’t hide from me. What I’m gonna do is give you a good ass wuppin.” But when Chamberlain did not respond to the operator, the operator called the White Plains Department of Public Safety, where a dispatcher took note that there had been several “emotionally disturbed person calls” at that address.
When officers and paramedics arrived at the scene, Chamberlain said through the door that he had not called Life Aid.
The police demanded entry to confirm that Chamberlain was OK, but he refused. When the operator advised Chamberlain to open the door, he declined, saying, “I did not call the police”; “No, I will not open my door”; and “This is an alert, this is an alert from Washington, D.C. An all-points bulletin all areas. I am being overrun by the White Plains Police Department.”
Tactical police officers were then dispatched and police obtained a key to the apartment from the White Plains Housing Authority, but Chamberlain had kept the safety chain on his door, denying them entry. Officers were also in contact by phone with Chamberlain’s sister, Carol Mathew, who informed them that her brother had mental problems.
For the next hour, Chamberlain became even more agitated and had multiple delusions and hallucinations. He made several threats to the officers, including, “The first one coming through that door I’m gonna kill.”
Chamberlain armed himself with a butcher’s knife and displayed it several times through the ajar door.
Police then broke through the door, and video from a Taser camera showed Chamberlain six to eight feet from the door wearing only his underwear. He said, “Shoot me, come on,” when police told him to drop the knife.
Police discharged the Taser twice and then multiple incapacitating beanbags before Officer Anthony Carelli fired two rounds from his handgun, fatally wounding Chamberlain.
Chamberlain’s son, Kenneth Chamberlain Jr., filed suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 and state law in the Southern District and the defendants moved to dismiss.
In a 47-page opinion, Seibel said the entry into the apartment was authorized pursuant to the emergency aid doctrine, as the police “could have reasonably concluded that Chamberlain was in need of medical attention or posed a threat to himself or other possible occupants of the apartment.”
Seibel then found that Sergeant Stephen Fottrell’s firing of the first Taser was not excessive force as a matter of law, but that Fottrell was not, at this stage of the litigation, entitled to qualified immunity as to the firing of the second Taser.
The judge also said the multiple firing of beanbags by Sergeant Keith Martin was not excessive force because once the Taser failed, it was reasonable for Martin to resort to “another form of nonlethal force in an attempt to subdue him.”
But Officer Carelli, Seibel said, was not entitled to qualified immunity because the complaint alleges that, once “the beanbags were deployed, Mr. Chamberlain went down. …Immediately after the beanbag shots, Carelli discharged his handgun twice and fatally injured” Chamberlain.
“Absent some reason requiring escalation from nonlethal to lethal force, discharging a firearm at an already-downed suspect who does not pose a threat is an unreasonable and excessive use of force,” Seibel said. “I am likewise not convinced that reasonable, experienced officers could differ as to the appropriateness of shooting a person who had already collapsed to the ground after the application of nonlethal force and (as I must assume at this stage) no longer posed a threat.”
Seibel found that the complaint plausibly alleges §1983 violations by Fottrell and Martin as supervisors, Carelli, and the City of White Plains. The complaint also plausibly alleged that these defendants “committed state-law assaults and batteries or negligence in the alternative,” she said.
Seibel granted the motions to dismiss by the White Plains Housing Authority and several other officers and rejected a claim by Kenneth Chamberlain Jr. that the defendants had entered into a conspiracy to deprive his father of his constitutional rights.
Part of that claim was based on the allegation that Officer Steven Hart, instructed to try and distract Chamberlain, called him a racial slur. Hart was fired from the force based on that allegation, but Seibel granted his motion to dismiss because, she said, as “reprehensible as such conduct is” the use of racial epithets by an arresting officer is not a basis for a §1983 claim.
One of Hart’s lawyers, John Pappalardo of Pappalardo & Pappalardo in Rye Brook, said Wednesday that his client “continues to deny that he ever used a racial slur” and that a hearing on his dismissal included an auditory expert “who indicated that there was never a racial slur used.”
Pappalardo, who represents Hart with Albert Cornachio of the same firm, said Hart is challenging his dismissal in an Article 78 proceeding.
Seibel also rejected liability against the City of White Plains, saying Chamberlain’s complaint “includes no factual allegations to support the conclusory allegation that the city has turned a blind eye to racially motivated or excessive uses of force by its officers.”
She kept alive, pending discovery, a claim that the city adopted inadequate policies regarding emotionally disturbed persons and barricaded persons.
The Chamberlain family was represented on the motion by Randolph McLaughlin, Debra Cohen and Jeffrey Norton of Newman Ferrara.
The family, Cohen said Wednesday, feels “like for the first time in a long time, they have taken a significant step forward to get justice for Kenneth Chamberlain Sr.”
The City of White Plains and six of its officers are represented by Peter Meisels, John Flannery and Lalit Loomba of Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker. A call to White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach seeking comment was not returned.
The White Plains Housing Authority is represented by Lance Klein and Jaclyn Bernstein of Keane & Beane in White Plains.
Officer Carelli is represented by Andrew Quinn of The Quinn Law Firm in White Plains.
“The defense team is pleased by the judge’s determination that the entry into Mr. Chamberlain’s apartment was justified,” Quinn said.
@|Mark Hamblett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.