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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Another City Owes Public a Review of Police Conduct

Editorial: White Plains owes public a review of police conduct, tactics
The Journal News - EDITORIAL - April 7, 2012

A grand jury soon will determine whether criminal charges are warranted in the shooting death of Kenneth Chamberlain, the former Marine gunned down by White Plains police in November during a standoff in his apartment. There is considerable and, so far, uncontroverted evidence already that White Plains officials have plenty of work to do — tasks beyond issuing belated condolences. Last week, nearly five months after the police shooting of Chamberlain, White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach delivered condolences to the Chamberlain family — via an email to The Journal News. He and other city officials, however, have much more to do. Those chores include ensuring there is a thorough vetting of the police tactics at the center of Chamberlain’s demise — no matter how the grand jury weighs in on whether the police conduct merits criminal charges. This inquiry, with community leaders at the table, should include police and civilian professionals from outside the jurisdiction, experts in best practices for engaging individuals who may be in emotional distress, as police allege was the case with Chamberlain, a 68-year-old former Westchester County correction officer. Other jurisdictions have undergone such introspection — in locales from San Francisco to Akron — usually after a fatal encounter along the lines that ended Chamberlain’s life in inglorious fashion. The result elsewhere has been a fresh or renewed emphasis on tactics and training aimed at de-escalating confrontations and minimizing the need for force, deadly or otherwise. By various assessments in these other locales, the new tactics have reduced injuries — or worse — to police and the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect. Chamberlain was shot and killed Nov. 19, after city police responding to a medical alert broke through the door of his Lexington Avenue apartment. Police said they heard loud noises from inside the apartment and were obliged to see whether anyone was being harmed by Chamberlain, who asked police to leave. Once inside, police first used a stun gun and beanbags, fired at high velocity, to subdue Chamberlain, whom they described as “emotionally disturbed.” He was then shot twice in the chest with bullets, after allegedly lunging at officers with a knife. In the immediate aftermath of Chamberlain’s death, Public Safety Commissioner David Chong told reporters that it “appears every avenue was used” before the resort to deadly force. He also said it appeared that all department guidelines were followed. In the time since those remarks, Chamberlain family members and their attorneys have discussed audio and video evidence — shared with them by the District Attorney’s Office and contradicted by no one so far — that makes plain that police were hardly committed to de-escalating the confrontation. In public forums and local media interviews — and in notable reporting by the New York Daily News and Democracy Now! — Chamberlain family members and attorneys discuss how police mocked Chamberlain’s military service; referred to him as a “grown-ass man”; and used profanity and a racial epithet in addressing Chamberlain, who had a heart condition. Police also are heard rebuffing efforts of a family member, residing in the same building, to intervene. One officer reportedly states, “we don’t need any mediator.” They would have been among the last words Chamberlain heard. Whether the resort to deadly force warrants criminal charges is the province of grand jurors; it falls to White Plains officials, however, including Commissioner Chong, Mayor Roach and Common Council members, to address, in a forthright manner, the other asserted conduct — the lack of professionalism, the lack of civility, the remarks aimed more at inciting than calming. Surely enough is known at this juncture, approaching five months after the shooting, to explain to the citizens of White Plains, and to the police who serve them, that better is expected. The public has a right to demand nothing less than professional conduct from the police. Commissioner Chong and Mayor Roach, what will you do to ensure those reasonable expectations are met? The public has waited many months to find out.

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