Bancroft Dudley Hall, a senior security administrator with the Polaroid Corp. in Massachusetts, was sitting in his car on a Sunday morning five years ago waiting to pick up his 17-year-old daughter, who had slept over at the home of a school friend. As his daughter got into the car, a policeman, gun drawn, suddenly appeared and asked for Hall's identification. By the time Hall, somewhat disconcerted, found his license, another cop appeared, reached in and hit Hall's daughter in the face, while her father was being dragged out of the car, pushed to the ground and handcuffed.
At the police station, as I noted when I first wrote about the case in this space last year, Hall was told that his story did indeed check out. Even though he was black, he had a reason for being in the neighborhood. So he could leave as soon as he signed a waiver releasing the cops from liability for false arrest and any other "good faith" errors they might have inflicted on him that morning. In return, they would drop any charges against him.
Hall ultimately signed the waiver because his daughter very much wanted to go home. Many people around the country do sign such waivers, and because they have agreed thereby not to sue the police, they figure they can't. On reflection, Hall, since he had signed the release under coercion, doubted that it was legal. He decided to find out, and filed a lawsuit against the town of Milton, Mass., where it had all happened, and a number of its police officers.
Milton abuts on Boston's southern border. Of its 26,000 residents, 1.7 percent are black, and 90 percent of them are contained in one small area of the town. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination has alleged that 21 real estate agents in the Milton area discriminate against minority home-seekers. In any case, the sight of a black man in Milton proper on a Sunday morning was so unsettling that a homeowner alerted police, and that is how Mr. Hall found a gun in his face.
After five years in the courts, Bancroft Dudley Hall, in April of this year, heard an all-white federal jury award him $420,000 in civil damages as well as $15,000 to his daughter, Sandra, a junior at Harvard. As Hall's attorney, Michael Avery, points out, the award is remarkable on a couple of counts. First, the jury gave Hall more than the $300,000 he had asked for. Second, Hall had not put in a claim for any medical costs. Therefore the damages were for the emotional distress and the humiliation caused by the police, in addition to their violation of his civil rights.
"I know of no case," Avery says, "where a jury has condemned racially motivated police misconduct in such strong terms."
As for the waiver Bancroft had to sign to get out of jail, the judge in the case, Robert E. Keeton, ruled that it is illegal imprisonment for the police to continue holding someone whom they are prepared to release merely because he refuses to sign a waiver.
The immediate reaction to Hall's victory by Milton town counsel Robert O'Leary was: "We have absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing. The town stands 100 percent behind the police officers as far as everything they did in this case. We think they did their duty." And officer S. Leo Judge, who was accused of striking Sandra Hall, said the jury had "sent a message to police officers: 'Hands off, do not enforce the laws.'
When the time came for the town of Milton to debate the question of whether to spend at least $40,000 more in legal costs to appeal the verdict, the town meeting -- after some folks blamed the press for making the town look bad -- voted thumpingly to fight to redeem the honor of its police department.
A dissenter, Ron Lewis, a member of the fair housing committee and the only black official in the town, told the Quincy Patriot Ledger: "Talking to people of color who live in this town, there is some feeling about using their tax money to fight this thing when there was something wrong going on."
Bancroft Dudley Hall had been dragged out of his car on Dudley Lane, a secluded country road in the town. Five years later, on hearing of the verdict, a woman who lives on Dudley Lane told a reporter for the Boston Globe that Mr. Hall had had a right to pick up his kid, but he would not have had any trouble if he'd cooperated with the police. The reporter reminded her that Hall did tell the police why he was there -- to pick up his daughter.
Well, the woman said, "Those people don't have a reputation for always telling the truth, you know."