Baltimore. My city. Gearing up for reaction to the first verdict in the trial of the officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray. To say things are tense here would be an understatement. No one knows how people will feel, how people will react.
Police leaves have been rescinded. School trips cancelled. Students have been warned not to venture out. Students have pushed back against what they see as kids being singled out, when the majority have been peaceful.
What I hope will not get lost in all of this is why we are here. A pattern of police behavior so common that it is part of our national lore is on trial. A pattern of policing that targets certain populations for harsh treatment is also on trial. This is not a trial about whether or not there a good police officers. This, to me, is about how bad officers have made it tough for the good ones to do their jobs.
In the past 30 years victims have sued police departments for the abuse they’ve suffered in the back of police vans, a practice known most commonly as “rough rides.” But the practice dates back to the end of the Civil War. The practice has been so commonplace for such a long time, that there is even a song about it.
Police in Boston found that a quick pace had an added benefit. The shocks from bouncing over cobblestone streets could incapacitate a bound suspect without officers having to raise a fist. The fast-moving carriages were nicknamed “Black Marias,” reportedly after an African American boardinghouse matron who, according to legend, helped police enforce the law. Others have suggested that the name had something to do with a racehorse in New York.
Whatever the origin, the practice has come to symbol for police abuses.
What happened this year to Freddie Gray, a small-time hustler, is not new. He was not the first person to come out of a police wagon with serious injuries. Not even the first in Baltimore.
In 1980, 58-year-old John Wheatfall broke his neck and became paralyzed during a ride to Baltimore’s Southwestern District. Wheatfall was seated on a bench with his hands cuffed behind his back, when he was thrown to the floor and hit his head against the wall. Wheatfall sued for $3 million, and was awarded $20,000 for his injury.
In 2004, Jeffrey Alston was awarded $39 million after becoming paralyzed from the neck down as a result of a ride in a Baltimore police van.
In 2005, Dondi Johnson Sr., a plumber, was arrested in Baltimore for public urination. Apparently uninjured at the time of his arrest, Johnson emerged from the police van paralyzed with a broken neck, and died two weeks later from pneumonia resulting from his injuries. His family sued the Baltimore police and were awarded $7.4 million, which was reduced to $219,000 under a cap imposed by Maryland state law.
In 2012, Christine Abbott, a White 27-year-old assistant librarian at Johns Hopkins University, was arrested at a party she was hosting. She was handcuffed and put into a police van. Abbott later sued the officers in federal court. Police acknowledged that Abbott was not buckled in during her ride.
Also in 2012, the death of Anthony Anderson was ruled a homicide. He died of injuries sustained while riding in a police van.
“Nickel Rides” were well known in Philadelphia, after a court case revealed that police were using this tactic to punish unruly, uncooperative, or arrogant suspects without ever laying a hand on them.
On April 10, 1994, Gino Thompson was thrown from his seat when the police van carrying him stopped suddenly. Thompson sustained a spinal cord injury which paralyzed him from the waist down. Thompson was awarded $600,000.
On March 31, 1995, John DeVivo was arrested, handcuffed, and placed in a police van. DeVivo reported that the driver slammed on the brakes, throwing him to the floor and fracturing his tailbone. DeVivo sued and was awarded $11,000.
On September 29, 1996, Bernadette Moore, age 34, sustained injuries to her shoulder and back after a police ride in which she reported that the driver was “swerving and slamming on the brakes.” She was later awarded $15,000.
In 1997, Calvin Saunders was thrown from his seat and slammed his head against the wall of a police van. He became paralyzed from the neck down, and was awarded $1.2 million.
On April 15, 1998, Robert Schwartz Sr., age 44, broke a vertebra in his neck during what he described as a wild police wagon ride. He was awarded $110,000.
On February 21, 1999, Carlice Harris, age 44, sustained injuries to her face, knees, and wrists during police transport. She was awarded $22,500.
In 2001, James McKenna was arrested outside a Philadelphia bar. McKenna alleged that he heard an officer tell the driver of the van to “f— him up.” During a 20-minute ride including quick stops and sharp turns, he repeatedly slammed his head into the walls, ultimately breaking three vertebrae in his neck. McKenna was awarded $490,000
A 2001 investigation by The Philadelphia Inquirer documented 20 people injured in rough rides there. Three suffered spinal injuries, and two were paralyzed. Courts had awarded $2.3 million in legal settlements resulting from these cases, but no officer had ever been disciplined.
In 1980, Chicago plumber Freddie Franklin alleged in a federal lawsuit that he was wrongfully arrested by six members of the Chicago Police Department and forced into the back of a police van in handcuffs. The van was allegedly driven recklessly, throwing Franklin around the van and causing him to bite off his lower lip. Franklin received $135,000 from the city in a settlement of the lawsuit.
In 1999, a former police chaplain in Aurora, Illinois sued that city’s police department, alleging that it was a common practice for police in Aurora to drive recklessly so as to attempt to injure and cuffed suspects. The department denied the allegations and the lawsuit was eventually settled.
A Los Angeles Police Department disciplinary panel concluded that officer Ray Logan had carried out a “screen test.” among other abuses, following a traffic stop on October 19, 1997. Logan was subsequently fired.
LA Rough rides were also known as “screen tests.” When police cars or vans had screens between the front and back seats, drivers would stop short — “to avoid a dog” — sending a handcuffed prisoner flying face-first into the screen.
Los Angeles has done away with the vans altogether because of concerns about safety and design.
A final Note: My cousin, who lives in West Baltimore, has been on a rough ride. What he described of the ordeal matches what others have said. He is lucky to be alive. His stepfather, a former Baltimore cop, confirmed the long-standing tradition of the tactic. He said the officers driving the van may not have meant to kill, but they knew the ride would cause pain.
It is time to end practices like this.