The mentally ill man who was fatally shot by Boston police officers Sunday had threatened two emergency medical technicians with a steak knife while ranting nonsensically before officers opened fire, according to the head of Boston’s emergency medical services.
The account, which he provided to the Globe on Wednesday, bolsters the police department’s assertions that the technicians and officers who had come to the South End apartment in response to a 911 call feared for their lives.
“It’s tragic things escalated and spun like this,” EMS Chief James Hooley said during an 80-minute interview. “It was not anticipated. This wasn’t anything we ever want to see happen.”
Hope Coleman, the mother of 31-year-old Terrence Coleman, has said she called 911 for help with her mentally ill son, but she contends he was not armed and posed no threat to the EMTs or officers.
“He wasn’t thinking about attacking nobody!” she said Sunday, later insisting that he held a juice bottle and not a knife.
The shooting is under investigation by the Suffolk district attorney’s office, but civil rights groups have called for an independent investigation. Police Commissioner William B. Evans said on Sunday that officers had to “meet deadly force with deadly force” and that when officers tried to disarm Coleman, he turned on them with the knife.
According to Hooley’s account of the day’s events, Hope Coleman told a 911 dispatcher that her son had been sitting outside for two days and she was worried. According to a police report, Terrence Coleman suffered from paranoia and schizophrenia. Before hanging up the phone, Hooley said, Hope Coleman told the dispatcher that her son did not know that EMTs were on the way.
The dispatcher designated the call using a code describing an “emotionally disturbed person” level two, which meant that police officers would also be sent because the situation could be dangerous, Hooley said.
Two EMTs and two officers arrived at the apartment on Shawmut Avenue shortly before 1 a.m., but the two officers stepped away to check out some shouting farther up the street while the EMTs went inside, Hooley said. The officers and EMTs have not been identified.
Coleman was in his bedroom, Hooley said, and an EMT introduced himself.
“We’re here with an ambulance,” Hooley said the EMT told Coleman. “No one is here to hurt you. Your mom was concerned that you may need some help.”
The second EMT spoke with Hope Coleman in the living room and asked about his prescriptions and whether he had talked about suicide or homicide, Hooley said. There was no mention of a history of violence or threats, Hooley said.
But Boston police had been called to the home four times regarding Coleman, including an incident in 2006 when he took two steak knives and threatened to hurt himself and his mother after an argument, details revealed in an EMS report released Wednesday.
That information was unknown to the EMTs on Sunday, according to Hooley, as Coleman suddenly and silently stood, grabbed a white bag, and walked from the bedroom, through the living room, and outside the apartment into the hallway. The EMTs followed.
“At this point, the man turned and something set him off,” Hooley said.
Coleman began wagging his finger and speaking at “rapid-fire speed,” the EMTs told Hooley.
“This is all happening within seconds,” said Hooley. “Next thing you know, he pulls out a large steak knife from a white bag.”
One EMT tried to push his partner out of the way and Coleman began waving the knife at him, Hooley said. The EMT backed into a corner near a staircase while the second EMT radioed for assistance, making “a dramatic cry for help.” That EMT later told Hooley, “I thought my partner was dead.”
The other EMT told Hooley he was thinking: “I can’t believe I’m going to die like this.”
The EMTs then struggled with Coleman, Hooley said. The man fell back onto one EMT, who in turn fell onto the stairs, injuring his back and ribs, Hooley recounted. The other EMT suffered injuries to his neck and head. Neither was injured by the knife.
Hearing the EMTs’ cries for help, the two police officers barged into the hallway of the building through a door left ajar by the EMTs, according to Hooley. As police arrived, the EMTs fled the building, with Hope Coleman close behind, according to Hooley.
The EMTs told Hooley they heard the officers shout, “Drop the knife! Drop the knife!”
Then two shots rang out.
The EMTs rushed back into the building and tended to Coleman, who was motionless on the floor in the hallway. They radioed for another ambulance, telling a dispatcher that someone had been shot. Hooley said he believes Coleman was shot in the lower abdomen.
“A minute ago they were basically fighting to defend themselves . . . they never expected this to happen and now they’re fighting to keep the guy alive,” said Hooley.
Coleman was taken by a second crew of EMTs to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead.
The EMTs, one a 20-year-veteran, the other with nearly three years on the job, were treated for injuries and have been receiving counseling, Hooley said. Investigators interviewed them Tuesday.
A law enforcement official briefed on the case said that the knife allegedly involved in the confrontation was recovered by police at the scene.
Hooley said EMTs receive three months of academy training including several hours devoted to how to deal with people who suffer from mental illnesses.
It’s not known why EMTs and officers were not aware of past emergency calls regarding Coleman. Police have not provided some details because the case remains under investigation.
The EMS and police departments share a computer system that stores information about the nature of an emergency call and that allows for warnings to be posted, Hooley said.
In addition to the 2006 incident, emergency personnel were called to the home in 2008, after Coleman had cut himself with a folding knife, according to a police reports. His father, Arthur Coleman, told police that his son had episodes of mental health issues whenever he stopped taking his medication.
On Wednesday, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, a civil rights group, called for an independent investigation into the fatal shooting.
In a letter addressed to the mayor, police commissioner, and district attorney, executive director Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal said Coleman’s death should not be investigated by the Suffolk district attorney’s office because of its “close working relationship” with the Boston Police Department.
Jake Wark, a spokesman for the district attorney said, “A prosecutor’s office may work frequently with a police department, but that has never prevented us from charging an officer.”