A deeper look at police response and personal rights

Aaron "AJ" Chappell

ADAMS — Did police act properly when they detained a black man last week, moments after a shooting?

It's complicated.

Experts who weighed in on that question agreed that, legally, it's a gray area, and they pointed to the tension between the challenges of police work and the rights of private citizens.

"It is a stressful situation — 25 percent of all officer killings occur during traffic stops," said Dr. Ron Martinelli, a Texas-based forensic criminal psychologist and trial expert.

That tension came to the fore Jan. 24, when Adams police officers spotted Aaron "AJ" Chappell driving by the scene of the shooting on North Summer Street.

Chappell, 28, was on the way to put air in the tires of his mother's vehicle when police pulled him over and ordered him out of the car at gunpoint. He was detained, questioned and searched before police acknowledged that he did not match the description of the suspects and released him.

The victim was hospitalized but survived his wounds. One suspect is in custody in Connecticut.

The incident was an example of "investigative detention," a term used to describe the temporary holding of a person whom police have a reasonable suspicion might be armed, dangerous or in possession of illegal substances or weapons.

In the aftermath, several experts have weighed in on this kind of stop, what's legal, and what is not appropriate even though it is legal.

Investigative detention has been a frequent topic of debate in legal and law enforcement circles, as well as among civil rights activists.

Rashaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said that, in many instances, a vague description of suspects is used as a pass to pull over drivers on hunches that don't advance the search or enhance public safety.

"They should not stop people on nonspecific descriptions, and they certainly shouldn't pull people out of their cars on nonspecific hunches," Hall said.

Adams Police Chief Richard Tarsa said officers stopped Chappell because his appearance was was a close match to one of the suspects police were seeking.

He said police were searching for someone based on descriptions provided by the victim — two black men and a white man. One of the black men was described as wearing a red baseball cap and a red hooded sweatshirt.

Chappell was wearing a red baseball cap and a white, red and blue North Face jacket with a hood. He and his family have said this was a case of racial profiling.

"They'll justify it by saying they had a fear for their safety and the safety of the public," Hall said. "But how many white people drove by that crime scene who generally fit the description of the white suspect?"

Hall said the investigative detention might be employed by some police a bit more loosely than it should, and might often violate a citizen's Fourth Amendment rights, but courts generally tend to back police in such legally gray areas.

And that leaves Americans at risk of being pulled over and ordered from their car at gunpoint with no recourse, and statistics have shown that a disproportionate number of black Americans are pulled over by police. They are also more likely to be searched and less likely to be carrying contraband, Hall noted.

Hall also said a person is not legally required to get out of the car when ordered to by police.

"It is an inappropriate order, but even if people think they're being illegally pulled over and detained with a gun pointed at them, it's always safer to closely follow their instructions and pursue a claim against the police on the back end of the incident," Hall said. "You can audibly register your objection to their orders — `I don't consent to being detained or searched' - while you are following their instructions."

And he said it is important to file a complaint "because it establishes a record of conduct that could result in future actions," Hall said.

Martinelli, a retired San Jose, Calif., police detective who has testified on behalf of law enforcement in a variety of cases, said once police have focused on a subject for an investigative detention, that person's rights become irrelevant.

"The police need to have objectively reasonable suspicion that the subject is involved in criminal activity that has occurred or will occur in the near future," he said.

He said there are no individual rights of the subject applicable in such a detention.

"It is irrelevant to the legal pretext and the legal standard," he said.

Karen Blum, professor emeritus at Suffolk University Law School and a member of the National Police Accountability Project, said police entering into an investigative detention are usually in a tense situation with someone they have reason to believe wishes them harm and might be armed.

"A police officer in that position might have a legitimate cause to fear for his safety," Blum said. "And in that situation, an officer has qualified immunity."

Legally, such stops are a conundrum if the person is unconnected to any criminal activity — anything that can qualify as reasonable suspicion will render the stop proper and legal.

But because police officers are human and in a stressful situation, pulling out a loaded weapon and aiming at someone who might or might not be a suspect, anything could, and has, happened in such circumstances, Blum said. Some result in injury or death.

The very practice of pulling out a weapon means the police officer is in fear of injury and is ready to shoot.

Meanwhile, the person they've pulled over could be unacquainted with such a procedure, and might be innocent of wrongdoing, Blum said. Having a gun pointed at them could provoke unexpected emotional or physical reactions — and police could perceive those reactions as threatening, resulting in rapid response.

Even if such an interaction goes well and the subject follows instructions and is released, the very act of pulling a loaded weapon on someone is a form of assault, and could result in emotional, even physical, trauma, Blum noted.

But none of that even enters into the formula, legally speaking. And investigative detentions are used by police often — dozens of times daily across the country.

"These are not easy cases," Blum said.

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-629-4517.