Joon H. Kim, the Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced today that there is insufficient evidence to pursue federal criminal charges in connection with the fatal shooting of Kenneth Chamberlain. Mr. Chamberlain was killed during an encounter with police officers from the White Plains Police Department (“WPPD”) on November 19, 2011. Mr. Chamberlain was 68 years old at the time.
Our Office opened an investigation following the decision by a New York State grand jury not to indict any of the officers involved. On November 17, 2016, a federal jury in a civil case filed by Mr. Chamberlain’s family concluded that the City of White Plains and the officer who shot Mr. Chamberlain were not liable for the death of Mr. Chamberlain. After conducting a thorough and independent investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has determined that there is insufficient evidence to meet the high burden of proof required for a federal criminal civil rights prosecution. To prove a violation of the federal criminal civil rights statute, prosecutors must establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a law enforcement officer willfully deprived an individual of a constitutional right, meaning that the officer acted with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids. This is the highest standard of intent imposed by law, and is different from and higher than the intent standard under relevant state statutes. Accident, mistake, fear, negligence, or bad judgment is not sufficient to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation.
The evidence from the investigation reveals the following: At approximately 5:00 a.m. on November 19, 2011, a medical alert company, Life Aid, received an alert from the console in Mr. Chamberlain’s apartment in the Winbrook Houses complex on South Lexington Avenue in White Plains. In response to the alert, a Life Aid operator called the console and asked if Mr. Chamberlain needed medical assistance. Receiving no response, the operator then called the WPPD and informed the dispatcher that she had received a medical alert from Mr. Chamberlain’s apartment and that Mr. Chamberlain had not responded to her call. An ambulance and a police officer were dispatched to the scene. The WPPD dispatcher also ran a computer check on Mr. Chamberlain and his address, and learned that there had previously been calls from that address that had been described as involving a person who was potentially emotionally disturbed. Based on that information, the dispatcher sent two additional police officers, including Sergeant Keith Martin, to the building as back-up and informed them of the possibility of encountering an emotionally disturbed person. Upon arriving at Mr. Chamberlain’s apartment, the officers banged on the door and asked to be admitted to confirm he did not need assistance, but Mr. Chamberlain refused to allow the officers to enter the apartment. The officers called for additional back-up, and four additional officers were dispatched to the apartment with tactical gear, including Police Officers Anthony Carelli and Steven Hart, and Sergeant Stephen Fottrell. Officers Carelli and Hart were part of the Neighborhood Conditions Unit, a tactical unit of the WPPD assigned to patrol the Winbrook Houses, and were able to obtain a master key to the apartment. The officers used the key to open the door to the apartment, but were only able to open the door a few inches because Mr. Chamberlain had engaged a safety lock on the door.
At approximately 5:25 a.m., Life Aid received a second call from Mr. Chamberlain, who stated, “I have the White Plains Police Department banging on my door and I did not call them, and I am not sick.” Life Aid attempted to cancel the dispatch, but the WPPD dispatcher informed Life Aid that the police officers needed to enter the apartment to make sure Mr. Chamberlain was not in distress. The Life Aid operator stayed on the line for approximately 40 minutes while also attempting to contact Mr. Chamberlain’s sister. Because Life Aid records its calls, there are audio recordings of Mr. Chamberlain’s conversations with the police officers from 5:25 a.m. until approximately 6:08 a.m., when the Life Aid call ended in order to allow Mr. Chamberlain’s sister to call the home phone. During that time period, the recordings captured the near constant communications between the police officers trying to enter the apartment and Mr. Chamberlain, who refused to open the door. For example, the recordings show that the officers at the door repeatedly told Mr. Chamberlain that they could not leave until they could see him and make sure he was “okay,” and Mr. Chamberlain responded that he was “okay” and “fine,” but also cursed at the officers, and at one point said he would “kill” whoever came through the door.
Between 5:30 a.m. and 6:00 a.m., the police officers worked with various tools to pry open the apartment door. While they were trying to open the door, Mr. Chamberlain poked a kitchen knife through the door opening. Officer Carelli grabbed the knife with bolt cutters and tossed it out of reach. While the officers were trying to open the door, Life Aid was able to reach Mr. Chamberlain’s sister, who spoke to Officer Carelli on a cell phone. As captured on the Life Aid recording, Mr. Chamberlain’s sister informed Officer Carelli that Mr. Chamberlain had a “mental problem,” and Officer Carelli responded that the officers wanted to enter the apartment to make sure Mr. Chamberlain was “okay.” The recording also indicates that as the officers continued to try to open the door, Mr. Chamberlain became increasingly agitated; he at times threatened the officers; and he told the Life Aid operator that he had a weapon. Throughout this time period, the officers continued to explain that they were not there to hurt him, but just wanted to see him to make sure he was fine before they could leave. While one of the officers was alleged to have used a racial slur in communicating with Mr. Chamberlain, that officer was not involved in the shooting, and none of the other officers present heard the use of such a slur.
At some point between 6:13 a.m. and 6:29 a.m., one of the officers kicked the apartment door open. At the time this occurred, Sergeant Fottrell had turned on his Taser, which automatically activated the video recording device on the Taser. As seen on the video recorded by Sergeant Fottrell’s Taser, Mr. Chamberlain was standing about six to seven feet from the doorway when the door was opened and there appeared to be an object in his right hand. According to all four officers who entered the apartment, the object in Mr. Chamberlain’s right hand was a knife. The Taser also recorded Sergeant Fottrell instructing Mr. Chamberlain to “put the knife down” and Mr. Chamberlain responding “shoot me, come on motherfucker, shoot me.” Sergeant Fottrell deployed his Taser twice from the hallway. After the second Taser was deployed, the Taser automatically ceased recording. The Tasers failed to incapacitate Mr. Chamberlain, as only one of the two barbs fired from the weapon connected with Mr. Chamberlain’s body. After the Tasers were deployed, one of the officers fired non-lethal beanbag ammunition rounds, striking Mr. Chamberlain in his chest and thigh. The non-lethal rounds did not incapacitate Mr. Chamberlain and he started to advance toward Sergeant Martin with the knife. At that point, Officer Carelli shot his pistol twice from inside the doorway. One of the bullets shot by Officer Carelli hit Mr. Chamberlain and fatally wounded him. Once Mr. Chamberlain fell to the ground, Officer Steven Demchuk used his baton to strike Mr. Chamberlain’s wrist to make him drop the knife. The autopsy report indicates that Mr. Chamberlain’s death was caused by the bullet shot by Officer Carelli.
In the context of this case, to establish a violation of federal law, the Department of Justice would be required to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that, at the time of the shooting, Officer Carelli lacked probable cause to believe that Mr. Chamberlain posed a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to others, and that Officer Carelli willfully deprived Mr. Chamberlain of his right to be free from excessive force. The weight of the evidence indicates that, at the time the shooting took place, the WPPD officers believed that Mr. Chamberlain was threatening Sergeant Martin with a knife and that Officer Carelli believed that Sergeant Martin was in danger of being seriously injured by Mr. Chamberlain.
The investigation revealed no evidence to refute Officer Carelli’s testimony that he shot Mr. Chamberlain in response to his belief that Sergeant Martin was in danger of being seriously physically injured by Mr. Chamberlain. The statements of the other officers present corroborate Officer Carelli’s account – namely, that Mr. Chamberlain had a knife and that he advanced toward Sergeant Martin with that knife before Officer Carelli shot his pistol. There is no physical or other evidence that contradicts these accounts, nor is there any video of the shooting itself, as the Taser video stopped recording after the Tasers were deployed. Accordingly, the Department of Justice cannot conclude or prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a federal criminal civil rights violation.
Accordingly, this Office’s investigation into Mr. Chamberlain’s death has been closed.
This Office analyzed these issues under the standard applicable to criminal cases, which is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The Office expresses no view regarding any claims made against any party under the standard applicable to civil cases, which is proof by a preponderance of the evidence.
Mr. Kim expressed his deep sympathy to the family of Mr. Chamberlain for their tragic loss.