NICKEL & DIMED TO DEATH: Is a long-standing Philly cop 'technique' to blame for a Baltimore fatality?

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A boy throws a brick at a police van, Monday, April 27, 2015, during a skirmish between demonstrators and police after the funeral of Freddie Gray 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 early 20th-century amusement park - which should give some idea of the ancient roots of this particularly cruel form of police torture.

For decades, cops abused criminal suspects by throwing them - handcuffed but unsecured - into the open back of a police van, then careening around sharp curves or slamming the brakes during a rough ride to central booking.

To keep with modern times, you'd think they'd 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 American policing practices into the 21st century: How about stopping "nickel rides" altogether?

Philadelphia has found that hard to do - just last year paying a recent victim of a rough police-van ride $490,000 in a civil suit, despite supposed action to halt "nickel rides" back 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 now rioting in the streets - was given a rough ride after his arrest. It's not clear whether that happened after Gray's lethal injuries - or whether the ride was what caused Gray's spine to snap.

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 that 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," Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said. "No excuses for that, period."

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" 10 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 a "hands-free" method to dole out street justice - including three who suffered spinal cord injuries, two of them permanently paralyzed.

The then-Police Commissioner John Timoney pulled many of the old 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 justice is possible when officers kill unarmed black men; and 2) whether America's high rate of killings by police is largely reflective of racial prejudice, which would make it almost impossible to solve.

But there are many things we can do, right now, that could 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 the issue of "nickel rides" altogether. Likewise, the rise of cellphone videos of in-custody 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 the snap of a seat belt.

 


On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

Blog: ph.ly/Attytood.com