Family disputes police account in killing of South End man
Hope Coleman called for an ambulance early Sunday morning to come to her South End apartment and take her mentally ill adult son to a hospital. He had been sitting on the stoop for most of the past two days, she said, and she worried he would catch pneumonia.
A short while later, her 31-year-old son, Terrence, lay dead, shot by police who say he turned on them and EMTs with a knife.
“We have to meet deadly force with deadly force,” said Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans.
Hope Coleman strongly disputes that account. She said her son was unarmed and had not tried to hurt anyone when police burst through the front door and shot him.
“It was uncalled for!” she said, calling the police’s statements flat-out “lies.”
Evans told reporters that Boston emergency medical technicians were escorting the man from the apartment when he drew a large knife and began attacking them. When two officers at the scene stepped in to try to disarm him, he turned on them with the knife, according to Evans. It was then that they shot him.
Neither officer was wearing a body camera, Evans said.
Police have not named the victim, but Hope Coleman, 60, identified him as her son, Terrence.
The grief-stricken mother sobbed uncontrollably Sunday morning as she said the shooting was unwarranted.
“He wasn’t thinking about attacking nobody!” she said. “He was thinking about getting the hell out of the house. He didn’t want to go in the ambulance.”
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s office will conduct an independent investigation, as is common procedure in the use of lethal force by police, and the office will release its entire investigative file upon conclusion, according to spokesman Jake Wark.
“To my knowledge, this level of transparency in fatal police shootings is unparalleled,” said Wark in a statement.
Two police officers and two Boston EMS workers responded to a 12:39 a.m. call to go to 245 Shawmut Ave. because of an “emotionally disturbed male in his 30s suffering from paranoia and schizophrenia,” according to a police statement.
Coleman’s mother said she had called the South End Community Health Center in preparation to bring her son to Tufts Medical Center because he was sitting outside on the steps and refusing to come inside. He had been sitting there for most of the past two days, she said, and she was concerned that he would get ill because of the chilly weather.
She and her niece, Shenell Smith, said in interviews that Coleman had struggled with mental health issues but was very quiet and mostly kept to himself. Since an episode of violence about 10 years ago when he was first being treated, he had been happy and nonviolent, they said.
Coleman was on medication at the time of the shooting and had been attending outpatient therapy, they said.
Hope Coleman said police arrived first — asked to accompany the EMTs, officials said — but she didn’t let them in the house because she worried it would further agitate her son. At that point, she said, Coleman was inside their first-floor apartment, sitting on the floor.
The EMTs entered her apartment and asked Coleman to get up and come with them, which he did, she said. But before they got outside, he decided that he didn’t want to get into the ambulance.
His mother said the shooting happened while she and her son were with the two EMTs outside her apartment in a communal hallway near the front door. One of the EMTs raised his voice at Coleman, who was standing next to the front door of the building, saying “no” with small hand-waving motions, his mother said.
Then police burst through the front door, Coleman’s mother said.
“They ran in and we all fell down — and then gunshots,” she said. A knife lay on a kitchen table, she said, but her son never picked it up.
Each officer fired once and the suspect was hit twice, according to the police statement.
“They probably thought my son had hit the [EMT] but he hadn’t,” said Coleman’s mother.
When asked about the claims by Coleman’s family that he was unarmed when shot, Evans repeated that the man turned on EMTs and officers with a knife, and a struggle followed.
“From everything we’ve heard, the officers had to move in and save the two EMTs’ lives, and [it] almost cost them their lives,” said Evans, who was at a children’s Halloween event at McConnell Park in Savin Hill Sunday afternoon.
One EMT suffered a head injury and the other a back injury, said Evans. They were treated and released, according to police.
The man was taken to a hospital, where he was later pronounced dead, the police statement said.
Hope Coleman said she was devastated when she saw on television that the police said her son was armed with a knife at the time of his shooting.
“He attacked police? The police weren’t in the hallway! They were outside!” screamed Coleman’s mother.
“I know damn well that my son doesn’t carry weapons,” said Coleman. “I was there.”
The two officers involved in the shooting will be placed on leave during the investigation and undergo counseling, according to Evans. He said they were sent to the hospital due to the “stress of having to take a life.”
“It’s the hardest decision we have to make,” said Evans. “It’s probably the most difficult, and my officers are going to have to live with it.”
More needs to be done to address those suffering from mental health issues, said the commissioner.
He said his heart goes out to the family. “This poor kid wasn’t obviously getting the services that he needed,” said Evans.
The Globe’s Spotlight team reported in July that nearly half of people killed by Massachusetts police over the past 11 years were suicidal, mentally ill, or showed clear signs of crisis.
In June 2015, a state trooper fatally shot a knife-wielding man, 45-year-old Santos Laboy, on a footbridge near Storrow Drive. In a separate incident the same month in Roslindale, a Boston police officer and an FBI agent fatally shot 26-year-old terror suspect Usaamah Rahim, who authorities said was advancing on officers with a knife.
Hope Coleman said five of her grandchildren — a 15-year-old, 14-year-old twins, an 8-year-old boy, and a 5-year-old girl — were in the apartment at the time of the shooting, staying over for Halloween weekend.
She gasped for breath and coughed as she sobbed and tried to tell her story.
“I’m not going to see my baby no more,” she said hoarsely, crying as her niece held her. “It’s not fair.”