Al Copeland was driving down a Boston road one April night in 2019 when he began to feel nauseous and pulled over. At the time, the then-62-year-old didn't realize it but he was having a stroke.
"I was afraid," he told WBUR News. "I say, well, at least if anything happens to me, somebody will find me."
It was officers with the Boston Police Department who found Copeland slumped over and barely conscious. Instead of calling an ambulance, the officers placed Copeland under arrest, writing in their report that they smelled alcohol. Copeland says he hasn't had a drink since 1995.
Copeland's wife, Valerie, told the outlet she believes his race led officers to believe he was drunk.
"Why they didn't assume he was sick?" she said. "I can only and strongly believe it's because he's a Black male."
The officers' assumptions led to the city of Boston paying $1.3 million in a settlement after Copeland endured damage from lack of medical attention.
For five hours, Copeland was at the police station, barely able to stand. While in a holding cell, he fell and hit his head against the wall, a police report shows. Officers, still believing that he was drunk, left him to "sleep it off."
It was only after Copeland threw up that emergency medical services were called. And even after he got to the hospital, medical staff treated Copeland as if he was drunk too, leading to another seven hours to go by before they realized there were no drugs or alcohol in his system.
By the time Valerie located Al, the damage was already done. He was hospitalized for several weeks before being transferred to a rehab facility. He had to give up his job with the MBTA and, two years later, still has trouble walking and eating.
"My balance, my attitude, my appetite," he shared. "Tasting food, and some cognitive things that are still happening, and some physical things as well."
The hospital that treated Al apologized to him and says they've seen hired social workers to help patients who can't communicate when they come in and established a center for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
A formal investigation into the incident wasn't launched until Copeland's attorney contacted the city. As a result, two officers and a sergeant were faulted for neglect of duty, but for treating Copeland like he was drunk. It was for not acting fast enough after he hit his head at the station. No disciplinary actions were taken.
Al and Valerie say the police department, nor the city have reached out to apologize and it's that lack of accountability that they say makes them frustrated.
"People don't want this to happen to anybody else," Valerie said. "That's what we're looking for. And so the [internal affairs investigation] report basically says: no lessons to be learned here."
"Hopefully somethings can come out of this," Al said. "To shed some light on it, to change somethings systematically."
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