'Nickel ride' form of police abuse persists

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James McKenna, whose neck was broken during transport by police, received a $490,000 settlement. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )

In Philadelphia, police call it a "nickel ride."

In Chicago, police call it a "joyride."

In Baltimore, investigators are exploring whether Freddie Gray may have been fatally injured - his spine nearly severed - when he was subjected to what police there call a "rough ride."

Whatever the name, the practice of throwing prisoners into the back of police wagons, unbelted, and then subjecting them to high-speed stops and starts is an aptly named form of street justice that has been secretly administered for many years in many cities.

For rogue police, it is a way to injure suspects - literally without laying a hand on them - and with a guarantee that there are no witnesses.

"Nickel rides seem to be a fairly common practice throughout the country, especially in major cities," Philadelphia lawyer Thomas Gibbons said.

Gibbons represented a stonemason whose neck was broken after Philadelphia police put him in the back of a police wagon - unbelted. The city paid $490,000 last year to settle the man's lawsuit.

After The Inquirer published a story focusing on his experience and those of three others who alleged the same abuse, the Philadelphia Police Department last year launched a review of how it transports prisoners.

Police Inspector Michael Costello, commander of the department's planning and initiatives section, said he expected to give his report to Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey on Wednesday.

Costello declined to provide details, but said he would recommend ways to transport prisoners "more safely and more securely."

In his review of transport vehicles and policies in nearly two dozen cities, Costello said, he found a wide range of practices.

While Philadelphia relies heavily on its fleet of 80 vans, he said, other departments use police sedans for transport, especially for the initial arrest.

Experts say sedans, in which prisoners sit belted into forward-facing seats, are safer than vans with side benches, which provide far less support in the event of sudden stops or crashes.

In Baltimore, community anger at the April 19 death of Freddie Gray, 25, boiled over into rioting Monday, the day of Gray's funeral.

Police there chased Gray a week earlier after he took off running when spotted by police in a high-crime area.

After finding a switchblade on him, police arrested Gray and put him into a van - unbelted. His family says that at death his spine was nearly severed, his neck was broken and his voice box was injured.

"We know he was not buckled in the transportation wagon, as he should have been," Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts has said. "No excuses for that, period."

However, it remains unclear precisely when or how Gray was fatally injured - on the street before his transport or inside the van - or whether injuries at his initial arrest were aggravated by the van ride.

In amateur video shot before the van drove off, Gray is facedown on the sidewalk with officers around him. He appears injured - police lift him and walk him to the van. His feet are dragging, and he cries out in evident pain.

Asked by reporters whether Gray was fatally hurt by a rough ride or was injured outside the van, Batts said there were "potentials for both of those."

Earlier, Baltimore's mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said, "It's clear what happened, happened inside the van."

According to the Baltimore Sun, jurors in civil cases in Baltimore have awarded substantial damages to people who sued the city alleging rough rides.

In a 2004 case, jurors awarded $39 million to a man paralyzed from the neck down in a ride. After an appeal, the city settled the case for $6 million.

In another case in Baltimore, a man died of a fractured spine in 2005 after he was arrested for urinating in public - and then transported without a seat belt, with hands cuffed behind his back.

"We argued they gave him what we call a rough ride," attorney Kerry D. Staton told the Associated Press. "He was thrown from one seat into the opposite wall, and that's how he broke his neck."

In Philadelphia, the term nickel ride, which dates to the days when amusement park rides cost five cents, gives an idea of how long the practice has been going on.

The recent review under Ramsey marks the second time in 14 years that the department has looked at its use of wagons.

In 2001, the department upgraded the safety of its fleet after The Inquirer published an investigative series detailing the injuries, including paralysis, suffered by victims in 20 rides. At that time, most vans lacked seat belts.

As The Inquirer reported last year, the department in recent years has retrofitted its vans with "grab belts."

Replacing standard seat belts with buckles, the grab belts are straps that run behind prisoners' backs on the vans' benches. Suspects, seated with their hands cuffed behind them, are expected to hold on during rides.

Critics told the paper the straps were far from safe, especially for suspects who may be drunk or high, or who might have been hurt before police arrived.

In the Philadelphia case settled last year for $490,000, police arrested James McKenna after he got into a dispute with an officer at a Center City bar.

McKenna said the off-duty officer told fellow police to "f- this guy up" when they arrived to put him in a wagon. The officer denied saying that.

In the jolting ride, "I went down two or three times," McKenna said in a 2013 interview. The fourth time he fell, he said, he couldn't get up. "I couldn't muster the strength."

While officers had said McKenna broke his neck banging his head on cell bars, The Inquirer obtained emergency room records in which arriving police informed medical staff that McKenna had been hurt "while being transported."

 


cmccoy@phillynews.com

215-854-4821 @CraigRMcCoy