An open letter to Boston’s officials about the death of Terrence Coleman
On Sunday, October 30, South End resident Terrence Coleman, described as “emotionally disturbed,” was shot and killed by police. Terrence’s mother, Hope Coleman, had called police for assistance in getting Terrence to the hospital for medical attention for his mental health. Boston Police Commissioner Williams Evans stated that as EMTs were escorting Terrence from his apartment, he drew a large knife and began attacking the EMTs and officers, at which point officers shot him. Hope Coleman states that her son was not armed, that a knife lay on the table but that he never picked it up. The police officers were not wearing body cameras. An investigation is ongoing.
November 1, 2016
An open letter to:
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley
Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh
We at YW Boston are shocked and saddened by the death of Terrence Coleman. Our condolences go out to his family and all those impacted in the community. As a group dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all, we call upon you to take the following steps:
1) Acknowledge Hope Coleman’s claim. Even if you dispute her claims, make a statement acknowledging that Hope Coleman stated that her son was unarmed when shot. In dialogue, sometimes people’s points of view are so different that they cannot agree on the facts of a situation. But to preserve or rebuild trust, simply hearing and acknowledging another’s point of view is critical. The Boston Globe reports:
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.
This is not everything you have heard. Acknowledge that you have heard Hope Coleman, and that her statement will be considered along with all other witness statements in the investigation.
2) Conduct a thorough and transparent investigation. DA Conley’s office has stated it will conduct an independent investigation into Terrence Coleman’s death and will release its entire investigative file upon its conclusion. It is critical that this investigation is thorough, inclusive, and transparent at every step of the way. DA spokesperson Jake Wark is quoted as saying, “To my knowledge, this level of transparency in fatal police shootings is unparalleled.” The Boston community needs and expects the DA’s office to set a new standard for transparency that exceeds the usual practice. The only way the community can begin to heal and build trust with police and officials is if we know that all available evidence is being considered and presented to the public. The community will remain vigilant in demanding accountability from the DA’s office in this matter. Recognize that the community will be doubly harmed in the long run if trust in the justice system and in law enforcement is further eroded.
3) Recognize that Boston is not immune, and respond proactively. Commissioner Evans has said that “Ferguson is not Boston.” He and other officials made similar arguments about Boston having a successful community policing program when opposing a police body camera mandate. In an interview in April 2016, Evans said about body cameras: “I just don’t like the dialogue that everyone thinks we’re the bad guys. I don’t think in Boston, we’ve done anything wrong to deserve sort of ‘every cop’s got to have this,’ like we’re all bad.”
Recognize that Terrence Coleman’s death shows what Black communities and their allies have known all along, that Boston is not immune. When future police transparency and accountability measures are proposed, though there may be legitimate concerns about aspects of such measures, do not assert that Boston does not need them. Be proactive in acknowledging the impact this death will have in police-community relations, and demonstrate that you understand it will take more than rhetoric to heal and build trust.
4) Work with community groups, in a spirit of humble cooperation, to address the impact of this death. Boston is fortunate to have a cadre of strong community groups, representing residents from all backgrounds, that can effectively advocate for the perspective and needs of community members. Go to these groups, and ask them for guidance about how to move forward. In an interview with the New York Times, Commissioner Evans was asked if Black parents would have cause to worry if their child had an encounter with a Boston police officer. His response:
No. We’re out in the schools, in the ice cream trucks, we’re so much in the community that we have a level of trust with them. I would hope that if their kids had a negative interaction, they would come forward and we would address it.
Hope Coleman is a parent who called the police for help in keeping her son safe, and instead he was killed. Black parents do have cause to worry when their child encounters a police officer, and simply showing up in the community isn’t going to change that. Do not place the burden on the community to come forward, but instead go into the community and ask resident parents what they need from you to feel secure with law enforcement around their children
5) Invest in mental health services, and name that effort as part of addressing health inequities faced by communities and people of color. There is a desperate need for accessible, affordable, culturally-competent mental health services in our communities. For too long, the criminal justice system has been made the de facto system for the mentally ill. Terrence Coleman was struggling with mental health issues, and instead of receiving de-escalation services in an emergency he ended up shot and killed in a confrontation with police; this is despite the fact that the Boston Police Department is one of only 20% of police departments statewide to provide crisis training to officers or send social workers on mental health calls. As Commissioner Evans stated about Coleman, “This poor kid wasn’t obviously getting the services that he needed.”
Unfortunately, Terrence Coleman is only one among many people in our state with mental health issues who die at the hands of police. The Boston Globe 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. This is unacceptable. It is furthermore unacceptable in light of the fact that individuals and communities of color are disproportionately likely to suffer from mental health issues, and less likely to have access to available treatments. Recent research shows that pervasive and pernicious effects of racism can cause poor health; and so, unless the system provides necessary services, it condemns our community members of color to this unjust cycle, and sometimes, tragically, to death.
We look to you to for courageous leadership, and to demonstrate that the city will lift its share of the burden of pain and mistrust caused by this tragic incident. Our previous interactions with city officials in these matters give us hope that you share our goals for justice, peace, freedom, and dignity. We look forward to working with you and your respective offices to make these steps happen. Boston can do better.
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