Kenneth Chamberlain Murder Points to Good Cop vs. Bad Cop Dillemma

Last week, a grand jury began hearings to determine whether or not White Plains officer Anthony Carelli should be tried for the November 2011 murder of former Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. The tardy hearings began just a day before the former Marine and heart patient’s 69th birthday.

While Chamberlain’s massacre may very well be intertwined with some of the public attention that Trayvon Martin’s slaying brought to excessive force, and tout relations between African American males and policing figures, there is yet another distinctive dilemma that must be raised due to Westchester County DA Janet DiFiore’s handling of the case. The lateness of the hearing, perhaps merely underway because of the pressure and attention given to Martin’s tragedy, as well as the Westchester police department’s initial reluctance to release the name and job status of the accused officer raises the question of how serious law enforcement is about axing out perpetrators of police brutality. Not only do the actions of Carelli perpetuate the violent culture of “Us vs. Them” in the black community, but it also jeopardizes the entire integrity of police departments everywhere and impedes all hope of black and brown communities embracing even the most respectable officers.

If there is any promise in repairing the deeply rooted tension between police departments and black and brown communities, it must begin with acknowledging the distinction between good and bad cops and swiftly and diplomatically dealing with those who partake in police brutality and racial profiling. If it takes a “Million Man Hoodie March” and hundreds of fiery editorials and petitions to even bring a case of brutality to the courts, then the sincerity of police departments to build rapport will always be questioned.

Prolonged cases and the public’s hesitation to openly confront and condemn officers is hardly exclusive to Chamberlain Sr. The fact that it took 5 ½ years for the NYPD to complete hearings and fire detective Gescard Isnora and force three other officers to resign after the 50-shot barrage that took Sean Bell’s life in Queens New York on the night before his wedding is a sheer indication that police officers are hardly subject to the same judicial system that places 2.3 million Americans behind bars. The scariest part about Chamberlain Sr.’s situation (accidentally setting off a heart monitor while he was sleeping and pleading with officers to let him sleep in peace for 90 minutes before being shot) is that it is near impossible for the staunchest police hailers to muddy his image, which the public so often tries to do when a black man is killed or beaten by officers.

Once again, the same question arises: if this is merely the actions and mentality that a select few “bad cops” partake in, then why won’t departments and DA offices seek to outwardly condemn their actions and swiftly discipline them? Why are they merely (if at all) given “desk work,” lose a day or two of vacation and retire/resign with an unscathed pension if police departments sincerely have an issue with their conduct? Such gentle dealing with Isnora, Carelli and others continue to obfuscate the line between good and bad cops.

Some grassroots organizations, such as Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) in New York City, tend to stray away from the individual “good cop vs. bad cop” argument by focusing on systemic and structural maladies in policing practices that reinforce a culture of profiling to meet quotas and inflate precinct statistics at the expense of vulnerable populations. While the 600% increase in stop-and-frisk between 2002 and 2011 and the black and brown men who make up 87% of those stops may very well be the result of a perverse culture in police departments, such an approach undermines the presence of good community policing practices and respectable officers. Indeed, outwardly rewarding laudable practices is just as important to building rapport as condemning the bad.

What has been argued time, after time, after time, is the outcry for an independent community-based third party to monitor police practices and participate in the hearing, punishment and reward process for negative and positive police conduct. So long as DA’s like DiFiore and police commissioners like Raymond Kelly prolong police hearings and gently deal with gross behavior, the perceptions will be maintained, whether they are entirely true or not.