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EMTs feared for their lives in altercation with mentally ill man

Hope Coleman held photos of her son Terrence Coleman, who was shot and killed by Boston police on Sunday.
Hope Coleman held photos of her son Terrence Coleman, who was shot and killed by Boston police on Sunday. (Jan Ransom/Globe Staff)

Emergency medical technicians feared for their lives during an altercation with a mentally ill man who was shot by police Sunday morning, according to community leaders and others who attended a meeting on Monday with law enforcement officials.

Police Commissioner William B. Evans and EMS Chief James Hooley met with roughly a dozen clergy, civic leaders, and lawmakers to discuss the shooting of Terrence Coleman in the doorway of his South End apartment. Police said Coleman had a knife, but his family and a neighbor dispute that account.

State Representative Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat who attended the meeting, said officials told them the EMTs believed they had the situation under control when they entered the Shawmut Avenue apartment at 12:39 a.m. Sunday. The man’s mother, Hope Coleman, had requested an ambulance for her son, who suffers from what was described by police as paranoia and schizophrenia.

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“They went in, had a conversation that sounded like he was willing to leave, and then abruptly, he became loud,” Holmes said officials told the group. “They thought they needed police involved.”

Holmes said officials told the group that a confrontation ensued between the EMTs and Coleman, who at some point pulled a knife from a white bag, according to the law enforcement officials.

The EMTs called for help, according to the law enforcement and emergency medical services officials, and officers rushed in and tried to restrain Coleman.

The EMTs “really feared for their lives,” officials told the group, according to Holmes.

The call was categorized as an “emotionally disturbed person,” level two, according to multiple people who attended the meeting. That meant police were assigned to accompany EMTs because the situation was potentially dangerous.

Coleman’s family has said he has struggled with mental illness. The Globe reported that police had been called to the home a dozen times, including four times for Coleman, once for harming himself with a pocket knife.

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But those who attended the meeting said officials told them the officers were not made aware of previous 911 calls, and Hooley promised to look into the matter. Hooley declined to be interviewed, and Evans was not available for comment.

A department spokesman could not say whether the officers were aware of Coleman’s history, but said that “address histories are available via our dispatch center and are provided to first responders when they are dispatched to a call.”

A police spokesman, Lieutenant Detective Michael McCarthy, said “the fact that Mr. Coleman was mentally ill was not relevant at the time [officers] responded” and that officers were “responding to a call for help by EMTs who were being assaulted.”

The officers, whose names have not been released, were scheduled for interviews with investigators Tuesday, McCarthy said.

The shooting raised concerns among civic leaders about the number of mental health clinicians assigned to the Police Department.

A Globe Spotlight Team investigation that revealed nearly half of the people killed by Massachusetts police over the past 11 years were suicidal, mentally ill, or showed clear signs of crisis also found that the number of ride-along clinicians in the Boston Police Department dropped from two to one due to a loss in federal funding. McCarthy said Tuesday that the department now has two clinicians.

“The clinicians we have do a tremendous job, and we would welcome any additional resources that could assist with dealing with mentally ill persons,” McCarthy said.

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Some city councilors who attended the meeting vowed to look into funding for more clinicians.

“We have got to increase the number of clinical social workers that can be available to the Police Department,” said City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who attended the Monday meeting. “They specialize specifically in de-escalating . . . they’ll usually have a case history, if a person has been previously registered for mental health [services]. They’d be much more informed, much more prepared.”

Community leaders who attended the meeting also said the shooting underscored a need for police body cameras. The department is in the middle of a pilot program in which 100 officers are testing the cameras. The two officers involved in Sunday’s shooting are not part of the pilot group.

Civic leaders said the shooting death should force lawmakers and the Police Department to consider whether body cameras should be turned on during domestic calls. Under the pilot program, an officer must ask the resident for permission to record.


Jan Ransom can be reached at jan.ransom@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.