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Second Year Student Detained in Case of "Mistaken Identity"

Over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, on Saturday January 18th, while attending a McKinsey Consulting Business conference in Dallas, Texas, Matt Turner (OC), Section President and a Captain in the U.S. Air Force Reserves was detained and questioned for over an hour by local police; in a confusing, bewildering, and humiliating course of events, Turner, an African American, was held in handcuffs as a suspect of a crime that witnesses reported was committed by four white males.

While walking near a main highway to call some friends from MIT Turner heard a car accident. Shortly after passing the car accident, Turner noticed that he was suddenly blanketed by a blinding police search light shining from a low flying police helicopter.

“I knew at that point to continue walking toward the payphone, and not to do anything suspicious at all,” said Turner.

In the following moments, a speeding police car approached Turner, stopping within ten yards of him.

“The next thing I knew, officers jumped out of the car and were screaming for me to put my hands up. Being that this was the third time in my life I had been falsely accosted by police officers. I ran through the “mental checklist” of the “to do and not to dos” at these opening seconds of intense fear, confusion and uncertainty. First thing: I knew to let them get over their adrenaline rush before asking any questions.”

With his hands in the air, the officers forced Turner on to the hood of the police cruiser and handcuffed him. Turner then directed the officers to look in his back pants pocket for his military and other identification.

“I told them that I was a Captain in the Air Force Reserves and a student at the Harvard Business School. I told them that I was in Dallas on a business conference and that I probably didn’t match the profile that they were looking for.”

While still in the same exact position while handcuffed Turner asked the officers why he had been detained. The officers told him that he was identified as a crime suspect. When Turner asked the officers about the description of the suspect, the officers said they didn’t have a description but that he had been identified by the police helicopter as a suspect, which led to the arrest.

“I asked them why they stopped me and why was I handcuffed as a suspect, if they didn’t have a description of the suspect. During the time, as more police officers came up, I asked each one why I was detained.

They basically couldn’t or wouldn’t answer any of my questions, and at that point, I deduced that it was clearly racial. As they continued to fail the logic test, I asserted their actions and behaviors were racist. This agitated them even more.”

After what Turner described as about thirty to forty minutes of being held, the officers drove Turner to the crime scene. When the officers and Turner reached the crime scene, an officer at the scene informed the officers that had Turner in custody that they were actually looking for “four white guys” rather than Turner.

“The officers didn’t apologize, they just told me that they were going to let me go and they asked me where they could drop me off. I told them that I wanted them to drive me to the Fairmont Hotel and to un-handcuff me in the lobby of the hotel in front of my business associates so they could be humiliated like I had been that night,” said Turner.

“So they brought me back to the hotel. There, the doormen, who had just got me a cab earlier in the evening, saw what was going on and looked very confused. Quickly around the flashing lights, a crowd formed. My colleagues came out, and I asked the officers to explain to them why they had arrested me. The officers stammered and gave them the run around.”

Before the officers left, Turner collected badge numbers, names, and chain of command information, precinct for all of the officers. Later that night, Turner spoke to some of his friends that practice law as well as some McKinsey partners. The next morning, along with a McKinsey partner, Turner went to the Precinct to file an official complaint against the officers.

“When I went to file the complaint, they said, ‘oh, you were the guy last night that was underneath a sign under a tree, and that’s why the helicopter identified you as a suspect.’ To hear this fabricated story angered me since I had no witnesses to counter this false claim.”

Turner wrote an eight page official complaint and filed it with the police department. “They told me that the report would go to Internal Affairs, they will get it on Tuesday because of the King Holiday, after which they would give me a call. I still haven’t heard from them.”

Turner also contacted a leading Civil Rights attorney in Dallas who informed him that the situation probably didn’t have enough evidence to warrant a lawsuit. Instead, the attorney recommended that Turner put pressure on the department. Turner has since written letters to the Mayor’s office as well as the department and to a recent Texas State Senator who sponsored a 2001 bill against racial profiling regarding the incident. (A detective has recently been assigned to the case which may take “many months” to investigate according to the Dallas police.)

In reflecting on the incident, Turner noted “I hope that people who know me will recognize that this incident that happened to me, happens to other African Americans every single day. While this incident will not certainly affect my drive for improving society, I always wonder how it affects others that have not had the blessings I have had in life. What are the short term and long term effects on people after these kinds of terrifying incidents that strip you of your identity and accomplishments solely on the basis of race? What can people here at HBS learn from this incident? That racial profiling is not limited to any type of African Americans; we are all directly affected even if we are fortunate enough to be a HBS student.”

February 24, 2003
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