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Boston quietly settled a case where police thought Black stroke victim was drunk

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Last year, the city of Boston quietly agreed to a $1.3 million legal settlement. It happened after police mistook a Black man who was having a stroke for a drunk driver. Officers arrested the man and left him in a cell for hours before finally sending him to the hospital. The settlement remained a secret until a routine public records request made by reporter Ally Jarmanning. From WBUR in Boston, Ally Jarmanning reports the payout is one of the largest in the city's recent history.

ALLY JARMANNING, BYLINE: Al Copeland was driving on a busy street in Boston in April 2019 when he started to feel nauseous. He pulled over right away.

AL COPELAND: Because I was afraid, I say, well, at least if anything happen to me, somebody will find me.

JARMANNING: Boston police did find Copeland slumped in his car and barely conscious. But instead of calling an ambulance, they arrested him. They wrote in their report that they smelled alcohol, even though Copeland says he hasn't had a drink since 1995. His wife, Valerie, suspects she knows why.

VALERIE COPELAND: Why they didn't assume he was sick I can only - and I strongly believe it's because he's a Black male. I think if he had been a 62-year-old white man passed out in front of Berklee School of Music, I think they would have called the ambulance.

JARMANNING: Copeland isn't the only Black driver with a medical condition who's been treated poorly by police. A Virginia police officer was caught on body cam footage pepper-spraying an unresponsive man who had a stroke behind the wheel. In Ohio more recently, a paraplegic man was pulled out of his car by his hair. At the police station, Copeland could barely stand when officers left him to use the bathroom. He fell to the ground and banged his head on the wall, according to police records. It was only after Copeland threw up five hours after police first encountered him that officers called an ambulance. Here's Valerie Copeland.

V COPELAND: I've seen all of the footage of when he was in the jail cells for five hours. To see how uncaring they were - unfortunately, it should be shocking, but it's not.

JARMANNING: It didn't get better when he got to a local hospital. Police records show that medical providers there also assumed Copeland was drunk and left him in the emergency room for seven more hours. It was only when Valerie Copeland finally tracked down her husband that doctors confirmed he had no drugs or alcohol in his system. He wasn't drunk. He'd had a stroke. Copeland is now 64, and he still has issues from the stroke with his balance, taste and cognitive function. He doesn't remember anything about that night. He says it was only later he was told what happened to him.

A COPELAND: I heard that - they treated you like you was a drunk on the street. That's what I heard. And that's how I heard it, and it pissed me off.

JARMANNING: The hospital apologized for its part in what happened to Copeland but said it couldn't comment on his care or any legal dealings related to the case. The Copelands say Boston police have yet to apologize or even reach out to them. Police did eventually investigate and fault three officers, but it wasn't because they treated Copeland like a drunk. Instead, investigators cited police for not responding fast enough after he fell. The department has yet to discipline the officers, even though the investigation wrapped up more than a year ago. The police department declined our request for an interview with the officers, and the unions representing them didn't respond. Neither the mayor's office nor the police would talk about Copeland's case, and they wouldn't say what, if anything, they've done to make sure a mistake like this doesn't happen again. That's a missed opportunity, says Oren Sellstrom. He's the litigation director at the group Lawyers for Civil Rights, which deals with discrimination and police accountability.

OREN SELLSTROM: If the impulse is, let's just get this one matter behind us by paying out a settlement and then moving on, then what you run the risk of is having the situation repeat itself in the future.

JARMANNING: The Copelands hope sharing their story will prevent this from happening to someone else, but Al Copeland says he's not sure his experience will bring real change to Boston policing.

A COPELAND: Hopefully, some things can come out of this to bring - shed some light on it, to change some things systemically. But who the hell knows?

JARMANNING: He's just one person, he says. And he's not sure that's enough. For NPR news, I'm Ally Jarmanning.

(SOUNDBITE OF GABRIEL KAHANE'S "WHERE ARE THE ARMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.