A judge who held an inquest into the fatal police shooting of a 35-year-old man inside his Winchester apartment has determined the shooting was justified because he refused to drop a knife, even after being struck with a Taser, putting officers in imminent danger.
Thomas P. Celona suffered from mental illness and was under the influence of a mix of amphetamines, ecstasy, cocaine, and prescription drugs when police responded to a 911 call that two men had broken into his apartment on Nov. 2, 2020. Officers heard furniture being tossed and forced their way inside, where they found Celona alone, stabbing a sliding glass door with kitchen knives, according to an inquest report.
Several residents corroborated officers’ claims that they pleaded repeatedly with Celona to drop a knife before Winchester police Officer Jeffrey LaTores fired a single shot into his chest, killing him, the report said.
“No reasonable alternative existed, except for the use of deadly force upon Celona,” Newburyport District Court Judge Paul F. Doyle wrote in the 21-page inquest report, which was unsealed Monday. He found that LaTores fired his gun when Celona moved toward officers while brandishing the knife and that no criminal charges were warranted. After reviewing the report, Middlesex prosecutors notified the judge they will not seek charges.
Celona’s parents and their lawyer, Debra Dewitt, who attended the inquest, disagreed with the decision and believe police made “a very rash judgment” to confront Celona instead of securing the scene and seeking help from a mental health counselor or negotiator, Dewitt said.
“They knew he had mental health issues,” Dewitt said. “It was a situation I think was handled poorly. It was something that could have and should have been avoided.”
Kenneth Anderson, a lawyer who represents LaTores, said the shooting was “completely warranted” and it was unnecessary to put the officer through the stress of an inquest.
“Being a police officer is hard enough these days,” Anderson said. “To add this level of public scrutiny to something where literally they are making split-second, life-and-death decisions, to have them and their families go through this, I don’t think it is warranted.”
According to the report, LaTores and two other officers arrived at Celona’s apartment on “high alert that edged weapons might be an issue” because LaTores had responded to two previous incidents involving Celona.
A couple of weeks earlier, LaTores responded to a call that Celona was randomly knocking on doors and discovered he had a knife in his sweatshirt pocket. He was taken to Winchester Hospital because of his “confused state and bizarre behavior” and checked himself out the next day against medical advice, the report stated.
In December 2019, LaTores arrested Celona for allegedly threatening another man with a hatchet in the parking lot at his apartment complex. The charge was later dismissed.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said she has requested three inquests into fatal police shootings and will continue to do so. The inquests provide a layer of independent oversight, make investigations more transparent, and give the public more confidence in their outcome, she said.
“I think for anyone who loses a loved one, under whatever circumstances, one of the most difficult pieces is really knowing what happened,” said Ryan, adding that inquests give families unprecedented access to see and hear from witnesses. “For an officer who is involved, if there’s been something that has gone awry, that needs to be known. If there’s an incident that is found to be justified, that should be public as well.”
After completing their investigation into a fatal police shooting, prosecutors ask the trial court to assign a judge to review the facts. Inquests are closed to the public, but the family of the person killed, along with an attorney, may attend the proceeding and ask questions. The officer or officers under investigation for the killing, and their lawyers, may also attend. A judge then releases a report to the public, along with a recommendation on whether criminal charges are warranted.
Ryan first sought a judicial inquest into the February 2018 fatal shooting of 43-year-old Alan Greenough in Reading. After a judge found that the officer’s actions “amounted to criminal negligence,” Ryan’s office sought a manslaughter indictment against Reading police Officer Erik Drauschke, who is scheduled to stand trial in May.
At Ryan’s request, a judge in December began an inquest into the January 2021 fatal shooting of 28-year-old Michael Conlon. He was shot by police after he allegedly threatened the owner of a Newton candy store located in his apartment building and attacked officers with a knife and fire extinguisher, Ryan said at the time. The results have yet to be released.
It’s rare for police officers to face criminal charges for fatal shootings, data shows. Since 2015, there have been more than 5,000 fatal shootings by on-duty police officers nationwide, including 962 last year, according to a Washington Post database.
During that same period, 98 police officers were charged with murder or manslaughter for an on-duty shooting, 21 of them last year, according to Philip M. Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University who tracks such cases.
“I think investigations are perhaps more thorough now than they were 10 years ago, but the net results are the same,” said Stinson, adding that only 2 percent of officers involved in fatal shootings face criminal charges and many are acquitted. “Often we see jurors are reluctant to second-guess the split-second decisions of on-duty police officers in potentially violent police encounters.”
Howard Friedman, a Boston lawyer who specializes in civil rights cases involving police misconduct, praised Ryan’s policy on inquests, saying it was far more transparent than the grand jury process, where prosecutors present evidence during closed-door proceedings.
“It’s a big step to treat the family of someone who was killed by police as a grieving family and consider their concerns about what happened,” Friedman said.
But Anderson, who represents LaTores and an officer involved in the Newton shooting, said Ryan has “abdicated her responsibility” by requesting an inquest on all fatal police encounters.
Dewitt, the Celonas’ lawyer, said the inquest process was “absolutely more transparent” because the family was able to see and hear witnesses, but she believes it would be a fairer process if prosecutors assigned to investigate were from outside the county.
“I think the public should know, Tom worked, he had a good job, he had a family that loved him,” Dewitt said.