The catch-line for the original television commercials was “I”ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Lots of people thought it was pretty funny, but at the same time realized that it reflected a deep concern, that older folks living on their own needed a way to summon help if something bad happened. Well, something bad happened to Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr.
From the New York Times :
Somehow the uncle, Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., a former Marine who had heart problems and wheezed if he walked more than 40 feet, triggered his Life Alert pendant. The Life Alert operator came on the loudspeaker in his one-bedroom apartment, asking: “Mr. Chamberlain, are you O.K.?” All of this is recorded.
Mr. Chamberlain didn’t respond. So the operator signaled for an ambulance. Police patrol cars fell in behind — standard operating procedure in towns across America. Except an hour later, even as Mr. Chamberlain insisted he was in good health, the police had snapped the locks on the apartment door.
The law recognizes two discrete functions served by the police. One is law enforcement, and the other is public safety. But just because the law sees them as distinct doesn’t mean cops see them the same way. No matter what function they’re supposed to fulfill, the First Rule of Policing still applies. So what if they’re on the scene to help someone in distress?
They fired electric charges from Tasers, and beanbags from shotguns. Then they said they saw Mr. Chamberlain grab a knife, and an officer fired his handgun.
Boom! Boom! Mr. Chamberlain’s niece Tonyia Greenhill, who lives upstairs, recalls the echoes ricocheting about the hall. She pushed out a back door and ran into the darkness beneath overarching oaks. He lay on the floor near his kitchen, two bullet holes in his chest, blood pooling thick, dying.
Shockingly, the White Plains Public Safety Commissioner declared the shooting “warranted” because, well, they invoked the First Rule. Not that it wouldn’t have been a good idea for the police to have remained calm and de-escalated the situation, calming an old man who might have been in some emotional distress. After all, they didn’t know what was happening, which means they had to break into his room. Sure, he told them he was fine at the door, but the police can’t trust the word of the person they’re there to save.
Some may wonder how it’s lawful for police to break into a person’s home without a warrant or probable cause, but this is where the rules applicable to their public safety function differ from their law enforcement function. They were there to save Chamberlain. They were not there because anyone suspected him of having committed any crime, but to help. When cops are there to help, they can do whatever they need to do, including breaking and entering a person’s home. After all, they’re there to serve.
Regardless of whether the police are summoned by Life Alert or the bat signal, of course, the same rules of engagement still apply. After all, even ill people have to be absolutely compliant if they don’t want the police to shift gears. The First Rule still applies. If it becomes a choice between the welfare and safety of a citizen and their own safety, the citizen always loses.
There will likely be more information to be had about what happened to Kenneth Chamberlain, as there were video cameras in addition to the Life Alert recording, on the whole time, which captured this prediction:
His son recalls hearing his father say on tape: “This is my sworn testimony. White Plains officers are coming in here to kill me.” A few minutes later, a bullet tore through his rib and heart.
The police tasers also had cameras. There are claims that he was taunted by police, and that a racial epithet was heard. An amorphous claim that he was “known” to police is thrown in for good measure, though there is nothing to suggest he had every done anything criminal. Plenty to consider, though its relevance isn’t clear.
What is clear is that a man who may or may not have needed help at the outset is dead. What started out as the makings of a real life television commercial ended as an episode of cops. The question doesn’t appear to be whether this could have been handled better, but whether the end result of a dead man whose Life Alert went off can be explained away sufficiently to rationalize his killing.
Expect words like “threatening, fear, belligerent,” to be used to explain how reasonable the police were to shoot him. If it had been a drug bust, they would use “furtive gestures.” If unsmoked marijuana was involved, you would hear the word “pungent.” These are magic words that have long made stumbling blocks disappear. Cheap words are usually sufficient to explain a death when the killing is done by a cop. That’s how the First Rule works. Remember, it only applies to police, so don’t try it at home.
The scene when the police arrived was that an old man pressed his Life Alert button, and to which the White Plains police responded to help. By the end of the encounter, he had indeed fallen and he couldn’t get up. That’s because they put two bullets in his chest. That’s a very different scene.