Ocoee family demands change after loved one shocked to death by police

Samuel Celestin, 34, battled schizophrenia, autism

Three years after Samuel Celestin was fatally shocked with a stun gun outside of his home in Ocoee, his family is calling for a change to the way law enforcement handles similar situations.

OCOEE, Fla. – Three years after a man was fatally shocked with a stun gun outside of his Ocoee home, his family is calling for law enforcement to change their tactics.

Ocoee police responded to the home Samuel Celestin shared with other members of his family the night of April 11, 2019.

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His sister, Joanne, said she called 911 after Celestin hit two family members while experiencing a mental health episode.

“He does have schizophrenia and bipolar issues,” she’s heard telling an officer on his body-worn camera footage. “He’s not on any medications right now.”

“It’s a nightmare for me,” she told News 6 in a recent interview at her family’s home. “I have to live with that every single day of my life.”

Joanne Celestin said she is a trained emergency medicine nurse.

“When I made that call, I thought I was calling a friend, you know? Officers do bring them in. Paramedics do bring in patients who are confused,” she said.

Body camera footage from that night showed officers trying to establish contact with Samuel Celestin, who was inside his locked home.

The footage showed him questioning whether the officers were real police officers.

When he answered the door carrying a knife, officers moved in. The footage showed them shocking Samuel at least four times with stun guns while they were on top of him trying to subdue him.

The video showed officers realizing he had stopped breathing while he was face-down in his handcuffs. They performed CPR, but Samuel died just steps away from his front door.

“It’s such a tragedy, and it’s something that could have been avoided,” said Samuel Celestin’s brother Jean McGianni Celestin.

“Unfortunately, what happened that night was a cry for help,” said another brother, Jean Guy Celestin.

“We called police to help him because we believed the behavior that night was a crisis,” said Samuel’s mother Rose Marie Celestin.

News 6 investigated and found out that all nine sheriff’s offices in the Central Florida region use mental health professionals in some capacity when responding to certain calls.

“This year, we were able to secure grant funding to create four new positions with the sheriff’s office to address mental health concerns in our community,” said a spokesperson for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office. “As a result, we are currently in the process of hiring Crisis Intervention Specialists that will be on shift 24/7 to offer crisis intervention, mental health services and assist deputies with de-escalation techniques.”

Fewer than half of the police departments who responded to News 6′s requests use them.

That included the Ocoee Police Department.

Saima Placensia, who took over as the department’s new chief last year, told said all Ocoee officers were now required to undergo crisis intervention training, which helps them identify situations that may involve mental illness.

She said money has also been set aside to add a mental health professional to some of those calls; however, she said she is watching to see how other departments are implementing these services before she spends that money.

The Celestins said it cannot wait.

“We, as a family, do not want to see another family go through this,” said Joanne Celestin. “We don’t think it’s acceptable. We think that every single life that is lost – of just one more life – is just too much.”

The Celestins said they also believe better insurance coverage would give more people access to mental health assistance.

They urged all families to establish a crisis plan in case a mental health emergency arises so that everyone knows how to react.

The Celestins have filed a lawsuit against the Ocoee and Windermere police departments.

The lawsuit is currently winding its way through federal court.


About the Author:

Erik Sandoval joined the News 6 team as a reporter in May 2013 and became an Investigator in 2020. During his time at News 6, Erik has covered several major stories, including the 2016 Presidential campaign. He was also one of the first reporters live on the air at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.