Al Copeland was driving on Mass. Ave in Boston one night when he started to feel nauseous and realized he needed to pull over right away.
He didn't know it in that moment, but the then-62-year-old was having a stroke.
"I was afraid," he recalls now. "I say, well, at least if anything happens to me, somebody will find me."
Boston police did find Copeland slumped in his car and barely conscious in front of the Berklee College of Music. But instead of calling an ambulance, they arrested him. They wrote in their report that they smelled alcohol, even though Al says he hasn’t had a drink since 1995.
His wife Valerie suspects she knows the reason Boston police mistakenly thought he was drunk. Al is Black.
"Why they didn’t assume he was sick?" Valerie asks. "I can only and strongly believe it's because he's a Black male."
It was one of a series of errors that night that ultimately led to a $1.3 million settlement with the city, one of the largest of its kind in recent years.
After Al was arrested and taken to the police station, he could barely stand. When officers left him to use the bathroom in a holding cell, he fell to the ground and banged his head on the wall, according to police records. Officers left him in the cell to “sleep it off," records show.
It was only after Al threw up — five hours after police first encountered him — that officers called an ambulance.
Valerie watched all five hours of the footage captured at the station.
"To see how uncaring they were," she says. "It is unfortunately — it should be shocking, but it's not."
"Why they didn’t assume he was sick? I can only and strongly believe it's because he's a Black male."Valerie Copeland
It didn’t get better when Al got to Tufts Medical Center. Police records show that medical providers there also assumed Al was drunk and left him in the emergency room for seven more hours.
It was only when Valerie 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.
But by then, the damage was done. Al had to remain in the hospital for weeks and then move to rehab. He had to give up his job with the MBTA. And he is still having trouble walking or even enjoying a meal.
"My balance, my attitude, my appetite," he says. "Tasting food, and some cognitive things that are still happening, and some physical things as well."
Al, now 64, doesn’t remember anything about that night in April 2019. His first memory afterward was waking up at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital two months later. There, he learned what happened.
"I heard ... they treated you like you was a drunk on the street," he recounts. "That's what I heard ... and it pissed me off. Immediately, I went to: all these white addicts all over nodding all over the place, they treat me like I'm a drunk on the street."
Tufts apologized for its part in what happened to Al, but said it couldn’t comment on his care or any legal dealings with the Copelands. Since this happened, they added social workers to assist patients who can’t communicate and formed a center for diversity, equity and inclusion to reduce disparities in care.
Boston eventually agreed to pay the family $1.3 million last summer, as racial justice protests surged across the city. But the Copelands say Boston police or the city have yet to apologize or even reach out to them.
Police records show the department launched an investigation only after the family’s attorney, George Leontire, contacted the city. Investigators faulted two officers and a sergeant for neglect of duty. But it wasn’t because they treated Al like a drunk. Instead, investigators cited police for not responding fast enough after Al fell and hit his head.
The department has yet to discipline the officers, even though the internal investigation wrapped up more than a year ago.
That lack of accountability frustrates Valerie.
"People don't want this to happen to anybody else," she says. "That's what we're looking for. And so the [internal affairs investigation] report basically says: no lessons to be learned here."
The mayor’s office declined to comment specifically on this case. And both the mayor’s office and police wouldn’t say what, if anything, they have done to make sure a mistake like this doesn’t happen again.
That’s a missed opportunity, says Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights, which deals with discrimination and police accountability.
"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," he says.
The $1.3 million settlement is one of the largest the city has made in the past decade for wrongdoing involving the police department, according to the city's records. Most of the other settlements worth more than $1 million involved wrongful convictions where people were forced to spend years behind bars.
It's also unusual because the Copelands never filed a lawsuit. The city quietly offered to settle after the family's attorney contacted the city. WBUR discovered the settlement and details about the incident through a public records request.
"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."Oren Sellstrom, Lawyers for Civil Rights
When WBUR first approached the Copelands about the settlement, they were initially reluctant to talk. But they eventually decided to tell their story, sitting down with a reporter in their Mattapan backyard. They hope sharing will prevent similar mistakes in the future.
But Al is uncertain what will happen next.
"Hopefully some things can come out of this," he says. "To shed some light on it, to change some things systemically. But who the hell knows."
He’s just one person, he says. And he’s not sure that is enough.
This segment aired on October 12, 2021.