OCOEE, Fla. — Jean “Sam” Celestin was tall in stature, but his sister describes him as a big teddy bear. He was the youngest of his siblings, and his mother remembers him as a man who had loved the Bible since he was 11 years old.
“He read his Bible twice in a year, all the way up until the age of 25,” Rose Marie Celestin told Channel 9 investigative reporter Daralene Jones.
It’s the first time the family has spoken about losing the 33-year-old Sam since he died after being tased at least four times by Ocoee police officers.
The officers were responding to his mother’s home for a domestic disturbance in April 2019. His mother and sister were not frantic during the call with dispatchers, nor when officers arrived on the scene. Sam had punched both women in the face. They said they knew it was a symptom of someone suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorder and off his medication.
“That night, I believe, like five days or one week and a half, I just recognize that he’s not there. He was not there,” Rose Marie said.
Sam, she said, was upset over a cell phone, but was also rambling about being poisoned by the water. She recalled how he purchased products in bulk from the store, which she thought was unusual.
“I had a lot of hesitation before calling (the police) that night because I know (about) the police brutality, I know that,” Rose Marie said, fighting back tears.
When Ocoee police officers arrived, Rose Marie and her daughter, Joanne, were sitting in a grey SUV near the home. Both women, who work in the medical field, were familiar with the resources available to help Sam because they’d had him Baker Acted before.
Florida law allows doctors, mental health professionals, judges and law enforcement to commit a person to a mental health treatment center for up to 72 hours if they display certain violent or suicidal signs of mental illness.
“I thought this was something that easily could be handled. In a sense of I know my brother. He’s a warm sweet, young man, doesn’t really have any violent behaviors,” Joanne said. “He’s just a big teddy bear and he’s having a crisis and when I called I just expected that they would, you know, restrain him, get him under control and get him to the emergency room to get some help.”
“HE’S SICK RIGHT NOW”
The first responding officer can be seen on body camera video 9 Investigates reviewed approaching the SUV, and the officer immediately asks about Rose Marie and Joanne’s injuries. In the body camera video you can hear the two women calmly dismiss the battery that prompted the police response.
Their concern was getting help for Sam. Joanne explains to the officer that Sam isn’t on medication and suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Joanne asks the officer about whether backup intervention units would be coming to the scene to help her brother, who she believed was having a medical crisis. To that, the officer said, “That’s separate from us.”
Joanne told the officer that she would be leaving the scene to take her children home, to remove them from the situation. The officer questioned that decision, “we’re investigating a crime here,” he said.
When the Ocoee officer and his partner approached the home, Sam opened the front door with a remote control and kitchen knife in his hand. His family believes the officers should’ve known something was off based on the unusual question he asked.
“Are you a real cop … you’re a certified cop,” he questioned. The officers responded with sarcasm, which it doesn’t appear Sam picked up on.
“Yeah, let me just pull it out of my pocket, right now,” one officer said.
As Sam continued, he told the officers their uniforms didn’t look real.
“We’re not going to play this game,” the other officer commented.
That’s when the chaos started. As Sam closes the door, the body camera video from two different angles shows that within seconds one officer deploys his taser and continues to stun him as he’s falling back into his living room. From another angle, you can see that as he’s being tased, again, he runs out of the home, as the office continues to tase him in his back. That’s where the other officer is, and he deploys his taser too, stating later that Sam lunged at him with the knife.
The officers chase after him, and he’s tackled to the ground by a Windermere police officer who responded to the scene as backup. Once Sam is on the ground, he’s held down by several officers working to handcuff him. He’s tased at least twice more, once while the taser is directly on his back for 20 seconds. Then he’s placed in a hobble restraint while lying facedown in the prone position.
Moments later, officers start to panic when they realize he doesn’t have a pulse. They tried to perform CPR, but he was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
“They came in lying to tell me that they took him to the emergency room, they’re going to take him the behavioral center and I even told the officer, ‘thanks for saving my son,’” Rose Marie said.
Rose Marie had been on the phone with Joanne the entire time officers were working to detain her son. She had no idea he had stopped breathing just feet away from their home. She allowed law enforcement officers to go in and out of her house, collecting what they viewed could be potential evidence, but she was still confused because she didn’t think a crime had occurred.
Joanne said she has remorse about leaving her mother with officers that night, thinking they would take care of her brother.
“He’s sick right now, and he should’ve been taken to the emergency room,” Joanne said. “He could’ve been easily contained, safely transported to an emergency room and gotten the help and assistance that he needed, but that’s not what happened.”
CRISIS INTERVENTION TRAINING
Florida law allows doctors, mental health professionals, judges and law enforcement to commit a person to a mental health treatment center for up to 72 hours if they display certain violent or suicidal signs of mental illness, as part of the Baker Act. Sam’s family was familiar with the process because a few years prior to this incident they went to the courthouse to have him committed for treatment.
The Ocoee police department hasn’t responded to 9 Investigates requests for comment or answered our questions, which include whether its officers are required to go through crisis intervention training. The family’s lawsuit alleges that it’s not mandatory. Channel 9 surveyed other law enforcement agencies in Orange County. Winter Park and Windermere police told us the training is mandatory.
It’s voluntary for most officers with Orlando, Apopka, Winter Garden and Maitland police departments as well as the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. In the last few months, Orlando and Orange County have partnered with mental health clinicians to ride along on certain mental health calls, something the Celestin family attorney believes should be mandatory along with that crisis training statewide.
The family believes the officers caused Sam’s death because they treated him like a criminal and not someone suffering with mental health issues. Their lawsuit further alleges he was confined against his will and the officers used force when he wasn’t resisting.
The lawsuit also alleges the officers punished him after he was detained by tasing, prone hobbling and using gratuitous, excessive and unconscionable force, resulting in his death.
Attorney Jeremy Markman said he believes that by failing to prevent their fellow officers from doing the same, by failing to engage adequately trained mental health professionals (such as a Crisis Intervention Team), and by failing to provide or seek medical attention for Sam as he lay dying on the grass, the officers deprived him of his constitutional rights.
“The U.S. Department of Justice has given warnings in regard to hog tying. He’s lying prone on the ground, having difficulty breathing and they tie him up and leave him on his stomach, not able to breath,” Markman said.
Tasers are considered non-lethal use of force. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement doesn’t track how often tasers are used or how often they may result in death or serious injury. AXON, the leading manufacturer of tasers, told 9 Investigates in a statement that in the 25 years since the first TASER energy weapon was developed, there have been 26 confirmed deaths causally related to the use of a TASER energy weapon, which directly occurred from falls and fires. This is out of the estimated 4.6 million field deployments and over 2.9 training deployments.
The 26 confirmed deaths do not account for TASER-related deaths of those who may have died following encounters with police where a TASER was used. The company issued a warning to law enforcement in 2018 for all TASER conducted electrical weapon (CEW) users. Within the document there are details about the effects the device can have, including physiologic and metabolic changes, stress and pain. In some individuals, the risk of death or serious injury may increase with cumulative CEW exposure. Repeated, prolonged or continuous CEW applications may contribute to cumulative exhaustion, stress, cardiac, physiologic, metabolic, respiratory and associated medical risks.
The company also told 9 Investigates that while it does not set standards or policy on when it is appropriate to use a TASER, it recommends that all TASER energy weapon users become certified on the device before carrying and using it in the field.
On Nov. 5 last year, the state attorney sent a letter to the Ocoee police chief stating there was not sufficient evidence to prove the officers sought to cause injury or death. Rather, they exercised the degree of force they believed necessary to detain Sam, according to the correspondence. The letter also reminds the chief that many first responders may not have sufficient training in handling situations involving people with mental illness in acute distress. The medical examiner listed the cause of death as sudden cardiorespiratory arrest during subdual and restraint.
“It really, really hurts that I could’ve given him some help and I wasn’t there and I wasn’t able to and it hurts that these people are supposedly trained to help him and they don’t,” Joanne said.