Our Opinion: Adams traffic stop could become teaching moment

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On Wednesday, Jan. 24, the town of Adams and Berkshire County were one twitch away from the kind of racial turmoil that engulfed Jefferson, Missouri, four years ago. On that day, police responded to a 911 call reporting the shooting of an Adams resident, along with a description of the alleged perpetrator — a black man wearing a red baseball cap (Eagle, Jan 27). Minutes later, Aaron Chappell, an Adams resident who is black, found himself on his knees in the middle of the street being handcuffed with a police service weapon pointed at him. Thanks to Mr. Chappell's calm, mature behavior at the scene, as well as the professionalism shown by the two patrolmen who detained him, this confrontation didn't escalate into a situation that would have put Adams on the map for all the wrong reasons.

Mr. Chappell, who has no criminal record, had embarked that day on an errand to put air in his mother's tires. Police dash-cam and back-seat video posted by the Adams Police Department on YouTube on Wednesday confirm that his vehicle was pulled over by two police cruisers, that he was ordered out of the car, complied when commanded to hold his hands in the air, and then cooperated by sinking to his knees and placing his hands behind his back.

Once the handcuffing had been accomplished by one patrolman, the other lowered his weapon. Mr. Chappell was placed in one of the cruisers while his identity was established, during which an officer informed him that he was probably the wrong person, and after Mr. Chappell had been cleared, the officer went on to apologize twice for the inconvenience and assure him that they had not "profiled" him.

This incident had a relatively positive outcome, but it reminded us how serpentine the road to racial harmony is here in Berkshire County as in the rest of the country. We will never know if Mr. Chappell would have been treated differently had he been white and the 911 call had described a white man in a red baseball cap. Already, sides have squared off over the incident: those who believe he was stopped simply because he was African-American and those who believe that the police acted properly because Mr. Chappell, to an extent, answered the description of the perpetrator. That he was black in a predominantly white town was further confirmation of the latter belief — a belief that, itself, has drawn accusations of racism.

Police place their lives on the line every day to protect the public, and in the world of the street where split-second decisions can mean the difference between life and death for all parties, it is a daunting responsibility to make snap assessments based on little apparent evidence, and sometimes just an intuitive guess based on a quick look. An officer who follows his gut must take a number of factors instantly into account, among them attitude, behavior and the unlikelihood in the officer's mind that there could actually be two black men in Adams answering to the same approximate description. There is nothing shameful in this exercise of "prejudice," if one wants to call it that, and it could well be argued that letting a man who looked like Mr. Chappell drive on unhindered would have been a dereliction of an officer's duty. In this case, once the officers knew they had the wrong man, an apology to him was instantly forthcoming.

Fortunately, Mr. Chappell kept his wits and comported himself exactly the way his parents had no doubt taught him to behave as a young African-American man in America — he made no sudden moves, cooperated with all police requests, and kept his hands in sight at all times. That responsible parents of young black men in America feel it necessary to have "The Talk" with their sons about the realities of life, a talk that white parents never even have to consider having, is a most revealing indicator that vestiges of racism remain woven through our society, even among those who honestly profess to harbor no prejudice.

For Mr. Chappell, the events of that day were traumatic and confounding: "It still makes no sense to me why I was stopped," Mr. Chappell said. "I was illegally stopped and I didn't match the description — that's wrong, no matter how you look at it." The events also have left many of his fellow residents riven by discord. Handled correctly, however, this state of affairs can be converted into an opportunity for building bridges and developing positive consequences.

The process begins with an immediate and overdue apology to Mr. Chappell by Adams Chief of Police Richard W. Tarsa Jr., who officially represents the department he heads and the town he serves. He understandably defends the actions of his patrolmen, but in this case an apology would display the kind of grace that engenders confidence in, respect for and cooperation with his force among all residents, immeasurably aiding his department in performing its duty. For those in the community who feel disrespected, such an acknowledgement of error would amount to a healing reaffirmation of their dignity, rather than an expression of weakness.

Mr. Chappell, thanks to his unasked-for position in the limelight, finds himself in a unique position to act as an interlocutor between an understandably fearful county black community and a white population that, due to its demographics, has rarely had to reflect on the true meaning of white privilege. It is not a mantle he might wish to don, but having a gun pointed at him by a white police officer gives him considerable authority in this regard. His composure under terrifying circumstances led to Adams' dodging a bullet as surely as Mr. Chappell did.

A teaching moment has emerged that the Adams police, law enforcement authorities around the Berkshires, and county residents should all discuss and learn from in the weeks and months ahead. If Mr. Chappell wishes to come forward to speak to members of the community — especially its youths — about his experience, his contributions would be invaluable in this regard.


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