Did a 'nickel ride' kill Baltimore's Freddie Gray?

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Mourners view the body of Freddie Gray before his funeral at New Shiloh Baptist Church, Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The Philadelphia cops called it a "nickel ride." The name came from the prevailing price for a ride down a rickety roller coaster in an amusement park -- which should give some of idea of the ancient roots of this particularly cruel form of police torture. For decades, cops abused criminal suspects by throwing them, handcuffed and unsecured, into the open back of a police van, then careening around sharp curves or slamming the brakes on a rough ride to central booking.

To keep with modern times, you'd think they's change the name -- call it a "$79.95 All Day Pass," or an "E-Ticket Ride." Or, here's an even better, crazy idea to bring policing practices into the 21st Century: How about stopping "nickel rides" altogether?

Philadelphia has found that hard to do -- last year paying a recent victim of a rough police van ride $490,000 in a civil suit, despite moves to halt "nickel rides" in 2001. And now, incredibly, we learn that authorities in Baltimore are probing whether Freddie Gray -- the 25-year-old man whose death after a police encounter has sparked massive protests and scattered unrest -- was given a rough ride after his arrest, possibly after officers had already snapped Gray's spine.

Two weeks ago, when Gray was arrested on a Baltimore street, for reasons that remain murky, he was handcuffed and -- as captured on a cellphone video -- dragged and tossed into the back of the van. Inside, it was later reported, he was shackled after officers reported Gray became "irate." However, he was not buckled in for the ride -- a serious breach of regulations.

“We know he was not buckled in the transportation wagon as he should have been. No excuses for that, period,” the Baltimore police commissioner Anthony Batts said. The commissioner also noted that the officers “failed to get him medical attention in a timely manner multiple times.”

Incredibly, this has happened multiple times in Baltimore -- including a "rough ride " ten years ago that injured the spine and killed an arrestee named Dondi Johnson, as well as several multi-million-dollar civil judgments and settlements.

Ditto in Philadelphia. In 2001, the Inquirer documented 20 cases of arrestees who were injured during apparent "nickel rides" that critics said provided cops with a "hands free" methold to dole out street justice -- including three who suffered spinal cord injuries, two of them permanent paralyzed. The then-police commissioner John Timoney pulled many of the vans off the road and installed seat belts to make sure injuries didn't happen, either on purpose or by accident.

But the injuries kept coming. In 2001, a man named James McKenna was arrested outside a Philadelphia bar and put unrestrained in the back of a van, then slammed into the vehicle walls again and again until he finally broke his neck. Police initially claimed that McKenna banged his own head against the bars of his jail cell, but the city settled his claim for $490,000.

It doesn't have to be this way. Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson last August, much of the conversation about policing in America has focused on two things: 1) whether there's justice is possible in the matter of officers killing unarmed black men and b) whether America's high rate of killings by police is largely reflective of racial prejudice, which would make it quite difficult to solve.

But there are many things we can do, right now, that would reduce the number of deaths in police company. Other cities -- such as Chicago and Los Angeles -- simply switched to using cruisers to transport suspects, instead of vans, eliminating this issue altogether. Likewise, the rise of cellphone videos of suspect deaths has raised another uncomfortable question: Why aren't cops giving more immediate medical attention to these suspects in distress?

Tonight, as I write this, the streets of Baltimore are erupting in anger and in violence. It is a heartbreaking, infuriating thing to watch. But one of the most frustrating things is this: The idea that all of this could have been avoided with a seat belt.