It's Past Time to Speak Out
Bart Worden, Leader
Ethical Culture Society of Westchester
It seems the country is waking up to racial bias in law enforcement. This awareness has taken too long to save the lives of Danroy Henry Jr. [a college student shot by police outside a bar in Westchester County], Ramarley Graham [18 year old shot by police in the Bronx], and Trayvon Martin [17 year old shot by a white man in Florida] or to have prevented the mass incarceration of people of color for non-violent offenses. It's come too late as well for Kenneth Chamberlain, the 68 year old resident of White Plains who was killed by police who responded to his medical alert call.Left to right: Danroy Henry Jr., Ramarley Graham, Trayvon Martin, and Kenneth Chamberlain
It does appear that at least some law enforcement personnel in our country may be color blind, at least in the sense of an inability to perceive the uneven justice doled out to people of color. They are not aware, apparently, of the harshness of their responses to African Americans and Latinos compared to their treatment of Caucasians. They do not factor in how their own fears about personal safety may color their perception of the dangerousness of others when they are preparing to use lethal force. They do not take into consideration how afraid someone whom they perceive as a perpetrator may be when approached by law enforcement officers.
But let's face it: our law enforcement is a reflection of us. Our own attitudes, opinions, misperceptions and apprehensions are what drive the behavior of law enforcement. Our obsession with personal safety, our fear of people who don't look like us, our inattention to the lives of anyone who is not perceived as "our kind" lay the groundwork for racial bias and provide a sustaining environment for that bias.
Consider the case of Kenneth Chamberlain, the 68 year old former corrections officer whose medical alert sounded sometime around 5:00 AM November 19th. Mr. Chamberlain, who was African American and reportedly "known to the police" did not answer when the medical alert operator tried to reach him so she called for emergency response. The police arrived at Mr. Chamberlain's door but Mr. Chamberlain did not open it. Instead, he said through the door that the medical alert call had been a mistake, that he was fine and not in need of assistance. He asked that the police go away. The police did not leave, however, but continued to bang on Mr. Chamberlain's door, insisting that he open it. This continued for about an hour and, because the medical alert two-way speaker phone was on and connected, there is a recording of the conversation Mr. Chamberlain had with the police at his door.
This means there is a recording of a police officer calling Mr. Chamberlain a racial slur at some time before the police broke down his door. That means, too, that there is a recording of Mr. Chamberlain asking why the police have their guns drawn and saying that he believed the police were there to kill him. It also means there is a recording of the operator offering to contact Mr. Chamberlain's son, who lives a few minutes away and a police officer telling the operator that they don't need assistance with mediation.
It is still unclear why the police were so intent on gaining access to Mr. Chamberlain's apartment. They were called for a medical emergency not a crime, and Mr. Chamberlain was clearly awake and alert and able to say he did not need or want assistance. So why they felt the urgency to break down his door, Tasers at the ready, is also unclear. Since the Tasers have video cameras that recorded the breaking of the door and discharging the stun devices, there is a video in existence, seen by the family and the family's lawyers, that shows Mr. Chamberlain some eight feet away from the door and standing in his underwear with his hands at his sides when the door is broken open. On the audio recording there can be heard the sound of someone saying to turn off the Taser's video after which the video ends. The firing of beanbags (done reportedly because the Taser shots failed to knock Mr. Chamberlain down) and the fatal shooting were not captured on the video.
If you don't believe the killing of Kenneth Chamberlain to be a racially biased incident, I would like to know your reasoning for that conclusion. Perhaps there is exculpatory information that has not been made public by the White Plains police but why would that be so? One would think that in four months' time at least that much would have been disclosed. The matter is due to be presented to a grand jury later this month and it is hoped that all available recordings will be reviewed in their entirety.
But regardless of the outcome of the grand jury's proceedings can we not, at the least, acknowledge that something went terribly wrong on November 19th? And can we not agree that there needs to be a re-evaluation of the use of lethal force by law enforcement? And can we not admit that, had Mr. Chamberlain been Caucasian, the events would probably have unfolded in very different manner?
As a concerned citizen, and I sincerely hope that you are, you can do something positive right away to promote better understanding: write a letter to your local law enforcement entity and request information on the department's protocols for the use of force. Ask, too, for information about the department's efforts to connect with people in the community and especially with African-Americans and Latinos.
And while you are out finding a mailbox, spend some time on the street and encourage others to send letters, too. Until we become part of the solution we are bound to be part of the problem. Let us not remain silent about these matters.