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Say his name: Jean “Samuel” Celestin

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Norine Dworkin


Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Say his name: Jean “Samuel” Celestin

Demand Justice for Samuel Celestin

Deep in a mental health crisis, Jean "Samuel" Celestin is seen here in a still from police body-cam video at the beginning of his encounter with Ocoee police officers, April 11-12, 2019, telling them that he doesn't believe they're real police. The encounter escalates, and Celestin goes into cardiac arrest after being repeatedly tased and hogtied and officers fail to administer proper medical aid. His death is ruled a homicide. His family has filed a lawsuit.

“With everything I already got going on, this dumbass decides to do this crap.”

That’s Officer Christopher Bonner of the Ocoee Police Department recorded on body-cam, as Jean “Samuel” Celestin’s lifeless body was loaded into an ambulance three years ago today.

Celestin, 33, who’d come to Florida from Haiti as a child in 1989, was known to have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, paranoia and anxiety. He was off his medication and experiencing a psychotic break. He’d punched both his mother, Rose-Marie, a physician, and his sister, Joanne, an emergency room nurse. The two women, who’d had Celestin “Baker Acted” twice before, had called 9-1-1 for help getting him to a hospital so they could again have him involuntarily committed to a mental health facility for 72 hours under Florida’s Baker Act.

Instead, when officers arrived at Rose-Marie’s home in an upscale gated development where Ocoee meets Windermere, Celestin opened the front door to police holding a TV remote control and a knife (but not, as the body-cam shows, brandishing it as a weapon).

He ended up chased, tackled, held to the ground and hogtied on the lawn.

Despite crying out, “I’ll stop. I’ll stop. I’m sorry” and “Please help me! Si’l vous plait!” Celestin had been tased repeatedly and held at gunpoint as Ocoee Police Officer Joshua Bode shouted at him, “YOU’RE ABOUT TO GET SHOT! GET ON YOUR FUCKING STOMACH RIGHT NOW! GET ON YOUR FUCKING STOMACH RIGHT NOW!"

Face down on the grass, Celestin went into cardiac arrest. It took nearly a full minute before the officers noticed that Celestin had stopped breathing and had no pulse. They started CPR, but refused to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or to fully clear Celestin’s airway when they noticed it was blocked. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.

“This dumbass decides to do this crap.”

It’s those words that stick with me after watching the body-cam footage of that night in  2019. It’s the thoughtless victim blaming. The disrespect and dehumanization. The unwillingness to provide the necessary medical attention once Celestin was in cardiac arrest. The absence of empathy, any recognition that a life had been taken. There is only irritation that “with everything I already got going on,” as Bonner complained, Celestin had the nerve to die while he was being brutally subdued.

The State Attorney’s Office under former State Attorney Aramis Ayala of Ninth Judicial Circuit Court declined to file charges against the officers — four from Ocoee’s Police Department and one from Windermere’s — saying there was no evidence the men acted intentionally or out of malice or prejudice. Her successor, State Attorney Monique Worrell, opted not to revisit the case. Even though she said she found the officers’ behavior “disturbing,” “wrong,” “unjust” and acknowledged to the family that Celestin’s race likely played a role in his death, Worrell said in a statement that “Unfortunately, based on the assessment of the prior administration, there is no legal basis to move forward with the filing of criminal charges.”

Celestin family attorney Jeremy Markham said at a press conference in September that this kind of inaction sends a message that law enforcement “can get away with criminal action and cause the death of someone like Samuel because he has a mental health crisis, and because he’s Black.”

After the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Rayshard Brooks, Daunte Wright, Alton Sterling, George Floyd, and so many more, it is a tragic fact that one of the most dangerous places a young Black man can find himself is in front of a police officer.

Black men are two and a half times more likely to be killed by police than white men, and police use of force ranks as the sixth leading cause of death for Black men, right up there with heart disease and cancer. Mental illness adds another layer of risk: 23 percent of people killed during police encounters had exhibited signs of mental illness, according to a 2018 study in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry.

The 56-page wrongful death lawsuit the family filed against Ocoee, Windermere and the individual officers is tough reading. The body-camera footage, even more difficult to watch. The indifference to life slipping away as officers stand idly by, complaining about lost glasses, scuffed knees, running out of taser cartridges, refusing — refusing! — to completely clear Celestin’s airway and perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. It’s callous. It’s depraved. It’s unjust. It is likely that no one will suffer any consequences. That just boggles the mind. 

Indeed, in a supreme irony, Officer Dominic Chiuchiarelli — who "drove his taser into Mr. Celestin’s back, tasing him at one point for twenty continuous seconds” and who, even when asked by a fellow officer, did not check to see if Celestin was breathing — was not only promoted to detective, but named Ocoee’s Crisis Intervention Team Officer of the Year just nine months after Celestin’s death. Ocoee Chief of Police Saima Plasencia declined to comment, citing "pending litigation."

There is a blueprint for change. Advocacy organizations, like Campaign Zero, have identified key strategies to help stop police violence, including:

  • restructuring police training to emphasize de-escalation

  • restricting the use of deadly force to only when “necessary”

  • deploying mental health teams rather police to deal with people in crisis

  • ending “broken-window policing”

  • requiring independent investigations/prosecutions of police officers

  • de-criminalizing low-level offenses

  • creating a police misconduct database and preventing fired officers from being rehired in other jurisdictions

But this requires the institutional will to change.

“The system wasn’t built to protect Black people,” Karundi Williams, CEO of re:power, which trains Black leaders, told NBC News in March. “And until we get to the root cause of policing and police brutality and the differences in the way police treat Black folks versus white folks, we’re not going to get to change.”

Depositions are underway, and I hope that if there is a civil trial that Officer Bonner's heartless statements are enough to add a few more zero's to any settlement the family may receive as some small measure of justice for a life so needlessly cut short. But in the meantime, as we recall other Black men and women who’ve died at the hands of police, some who’ve become national symbols of police violence, others who didn’t even make the local news, on this third anniversary of Jean “Samuel” Celestin’s death, let us remember his name.

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