Boston, MA — The taxpayers of Boston were put on notice this week that they will be paying out a historically large settlement thanks to the incompetence of their police department. Officers accused Al Copeland, 62, of being drunk and arrested him instead of getting him help for the stroke he had just suffered.
On that fateful night, Copeland was driving home when he says he began feeling nauseous, so he pulled over right away. The feeling got worse after he pulled over and he eventually lost consciousness. He didn't know it but he was in the midst of a stroke.
"I was afraid," he told WBUR. "I say, well, at least if anything happens to me, somebody will find me."
It is widely known that the longer a stroke goes untreated, the greater the potential for brain damage and disability exist which is why health experts advocate the F.A.S.T. program. Unfortunately for Copeland, however, he wasn't found by experts that night. He was found by cops who mistook his life-threatening condition for driving under the influence.
When police found Copeland that night, he was slumped over the wheel and parked in front of the Berklee College of Music. Despite Copeland being unresponsive and in clear medical distress, police didn't call him an ambulance. They handcuffed and brought him to jail instead.
Police claimed — without evidence — that Copeland "smelled like alcohol," and they charged him with DUI. But Copeland, a gainfully employed official with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority with no criminal record, hadn't had a sip of alcohol since 1995.
Valerie Copeland, Al's wife — who is a pastor at Life Church Boston — says her husband was arrested instead of given medical help because of the color of his skin.
"Why didn’t they assume he was sick?" Valerie asks. "I can only and strongly believe it's because he's a Black male."
Because cops wrongly accused Copeland of being drunk, this innocent man spent the crucial moments that could have prevented serious complications from the stroke, unconscious in a police department toilet having collapsed and hit his head while being booked. Valerie watched her husband's mistreatment on the surveillance footage — all five hours of it.
"To see how uncaring they were," Valerie said. "It is unfortunately — it should be shocking, but it's not."
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Only after officers found Copeland lying in a pool of his own vomit, unconscious in the police station, did they call an ambulance. Even then, however, police likely informed the health care workers that they thought Copeland was drunk, so they treated him in a similar manner.
Instead of giving him the life-saving treatment he needed at that moment, Copeland was left in the emergency room for seven more hours.
He may have died in that emergency room had his wife not shown up. When her husband never came that night, Valerie became worried and started calling hospitals. When she found her husband at the Tufts Medical Center, they told her he had come in drunk and he was sleeping it off.
But Valerie knew her husband didn't drink and a blood draw was finally conducted, confirming Copeland had no drugs or alcohol in his system. By the time they realized he'd had a stroke it was too late and the severe damage had already happened.
Copeland would spend the next several weeks unconscious in the hospital only to awaken in the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital two months later. Only then, would he be notified that he'd had a stroke.
Copeland is now permanently disabled and has trouble walking and eating.
"A lot a bit with my balance, my attitude, my appetite," he says. "Tasting food, and some cognitive things that are still happening, and some physical things as well."
When Copeland learned how the police had arrested and then neglected him instead of given him medical help that night, he became very upset.
"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."
This week, the Copeland family settled the largest lawsuit of its kind in Boston — a $1.3 million payout.