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Call for an ambulance ends in police shooting

Mother says son unarmed, BPD claims self-defense

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Early Sunday morning, police and EMTs arrived at a South End brownstone, answering a worried mother’s call for an ambulance for her son. By the end of the morning, he was dead, fatally shot by the police officers. The police account of how and why this happened differs vastly from the mother’s.

Terrence Coleman, age 31, suffered paranoid schizophrenia and had spent most of the previous two days sitting outdoors. Concerned that her son would catch pneumonia in the cold weather if this behavior persisted, his mother, Hope Coleman, called South End Community Health Center. She requested her son be brought to Tufts Medical Center. Two police officers, two EMTs and an ambulance were dispatched.

Coleman says that after an EMT raised his voice at Terrence for refusing to enter the ambulance, officers rushed in and shot him. Police claim they did that after hearing commotion and, upon entering the home, finding Terrence attacking EMTs with a knife. They said they only killed Terrence after he turned on the officers and they were unable to disarm him.

Neither officer wore a body camera.

The Suffolk District Attorney’s office has been charged with investigating, but some activists and officials say a more transparent process is needed to earn the public’s trust in the impartiality of the investigation. Mass Action Against Police Brutality members say Suffolk D.A. Dan Conley has repeatedly failed to hold police officers accountable or approach such investigations with rigor.

Jake Wark, D.A. press secretary, told the Banner that Conley has never brought charges against an officer for a shooting. Conley has held his position since 2002.

In the past three years, seven people have been fatally shot by police in Boston. Three investigations remain open. For each of the remaining four cases, the D.A.’s office has ruled that the evidence involved did not support probable cause for a homicide charge, Wark said.

Sunday morning shooting

The EMTs entered the Shawmut Avenue home as the officers waited outside. While Terrence Coleman let the EMTs lead him out of the first-floor apartment into the hall, he was reluctant to enter the ambulance, Hope Coleman says. Terrence stopped by the front door, making small hand-waving motions and saying “no.” In response, an EMT raised his voice at Terrence. Then the police officers burst into the hallway, knocking over Hope, Terrence and the EMTs. Hope Coleman says she heard gunshots, then straightened up to find her son dead.

“They shot my son right next to me,” Hope Coleman said, weeping, in a WBZ video.

Meanwhile, Police Commissioner William Evans asserts that Terrence brandished a large knife at the responders, leaving police no option but to shoot to protect their own and the EMTs’ lives.

According to Evans, the officers entered the home after hearing a commotion from within. There they saw Terrence Coleman attacking the EMTs with the knife, Evans said. When the officers tried to disarm him, he came at them.

“Their lives were in danger,” Evans said. “A knife was being thrust at them. …We grieve for [Hope Coleman], but they left us no choice.”

Evans said there may not have been non-lethal options.

“I don’t think a Taser would have saved the officers’ lives or the EMT’s lives,” Evans said.

According to Terrence’s mother, the only knife visible was one sitting on a kitchen table inside the apartment — not one in her son’s hands. What he was holding, she said, was a bottle of juice. She said that her son could not have attacked the police, as they were not in the hallway long enough with Terrance before they began shooting.

Hope Coleman and her niece told the Boston Globe that Terrence had been nonviolent since an incident ten years ago, early into his treatment, when he threatened to harm himself and “do battle” with his mother. (In another incident, eight years ago, police were called when Terrence cut himself with a pocket knife, the Globe reports). At the time of his death, he was on medication and had been attending outpatient therapy, Coleman and her niece said.

Officers and EMTs were treated at a hospital for minor injuries — one EMT had a head injury, the other had a back injury — and all were discharged, CBS reported.

Mass Action Against Police Brutality’s Brock Satter told the Banner that MAAPB believes police officers accused Terrence of being armed as an excuse to coverup for their actions, and does not have faith that Evans would admit to any case of police wrongdoing.

“I’ve never heard him criticize the action of any police officer,” Satter said. He cited as one example Evans’ defense of an off-duty officer who assaulted a pedestrian for allegedly hitting the officers’ car window.

Investigation

Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley’s office will conduct an investigation and release the file to the family and media upon completion, as that office’s standard procedure.

“To my knowledge, this level of transparency in fatal police shootings is unparalleled, and no other district attorney’s office in the country affirmatively releases every report, every interview, every dispatch transmission and every map and diagram in every case that we do,” Conley said in a statement.

However, state Rep. Evandro Carvalho said that regardless of the D.A.’s conduct and intentions, the trend of police acquittals nationwide has created a prevailing national perception that district attorneys are insufficiently independent from police.

“Perceptions from the public now are that the police can get away with anything, whether it is reckless disregard, or in some cases, intentional killing,” Carvalho said in a Banner phone interview.

To foster trust with communities of color, he advocates for a governor-appointed special prosecutor to be used instead of district attorneys to investigate high-tension cases, such as officer-involved shootings. Carvalho filed proposed legislation to this effect last session and said he intends to refile in January 2017. At the very least, Carvalho said, use of grand juries should be discontinued, as the secrecy maintained over grand jury discussions and how the jurors arrive at their conclusions feeds public distrust.

If you go

What: Vigil for Terrence Coleman, followed by march to police headquarters. Organized by Mass Action Against Police Brutality

Where: Shawmut Avenue and Milford Street, South End, Boston

When: Wednesday Nov. 2, 6:30 p.m.

“If it goes to grand jury, we don’t know what happens, and then there’s no charges,” Carvahlo said, noting the Eric Garner case.

Carl Williams, ACLU staff attorney, says another complication is that district attorneys often use police department units to help investigate shootings by officers.

“[Conley] often uses the Boston Police Department to investigate the Boston Police Department,” Williams told the Banner.

MAAPB’s Satter said the group does not trust Conley to investigate effectively, given what they see as a poor track record.

Among the incidents that led to this view: Satter cited the case of Usaamah Rahim, a terrorism suspect who was fatally shot by police after allegedly lunging at officers with a knife. Satter said questions continue to linger over the officers’ acquittal, as Rahims’ fingerprints were not recovered from the knife and its sheath. (While a knife was recovered from the scene, footage of the incident is unclear, creating uncertainty over whether Rahim actually held it).

MAAPB is requesting the case be reopened.

In another example, Sutter said Conley failed to proactively investigate a case in which an MBTA officer assaulted a Roxbury resident.

“It took [the assaulted resident] two years of fighting for her rights to do something that, if Dan Conley was competent and sincere, he could easily have done in the first couple days, which was just look at the evidence — at the MBTA videotape that captured the assault and eventually did lead to an indictment,” Sutter said. “Officers have no fear of any repercussions for their actions. That’s the message they’re getting from their superiors and the courts.”

MAAPB advises bringing such cases to trial so as to allow cross-examination of presented facts.