police - freddie gray

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Police leaves have been rescinded.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.

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KalimamonicaangelaNirekSueInCaJames Michael Brodie Recent comment authors
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The statistics are truly terrifying in your article, JMBrodie. They leave no doubt about the festering illness in police departments, and the obvious decades of cover ups of violence against black Americans. It is painful to read, and needs to be addressed immediately nationwide.

I read the article below yesterday but am sure that you are already aware of the details. Shocking that police can continue to murder and maim others just because of the colour of their skin. It sounds like apartheid to me.

The people who promise to serve and protect, only serve and protect those they choose to. There is something so very wrong with that in civilised society. Every reason to be angry. Every reason to be sad when fellow Americans are being treated as inferior human beings, then being punished for it too.

It makes the Black Panther movement that much easier to understand even though it became too radical. The idea of protecting black communities from police brutality is just as critical as it was in the 60’s if not more so now.

Thank you so much for bringing the issue into the light here so eloquently.


Arrests Fall, Murder Booms In Baltimore’s Worst Area



Thank you for this heartfelt article regarding policing in your city. The statistics you present are heartbreaking. I find it so hard to understand how one human being can be so indifferent, so sadistic, so careless when it comes to the life of another human being.

It appears the people of Baltimore have been suffering this treatment for so long, it has become a “matter of fact” part of policing in that city.

Early police vans were in the form of horse-drawn carriages, with the carriage being in the form of a secure prison cell. In the modern age, motorised police vans replaced the older Black Maria and paddy wagon types as they were usually crudely adapted for accommodation of prisoners.

The need for a secure police van was realised when prisoners who were resisting arrest needed to be transported. The concern, was that if transported in a conventional patrol car, the prisoner may attack the officers during the journey.

To combat this, police vans were designed with a fixed steel cage in the rear of the vehicle effectively separating the prisoner from the officers. More information on the history of this type of treatment for prisoners can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Police_van

As you can see this practice has been in effect for a long, long time so I doubt it will cease without heavy pressure from the citizens of this nation. It appears some get rougher rides than others in these mobile cells and that it is up to those doing the transporting as to how much care and attention they apply to the safety of those being transported.

If these vehicles are absolutely necessary, then I believe it is about time better safety regulations were put into place, along with cameras, and stiff fines and prison sentences for those who violate the regulations.


What a great piece of research. I have no doubt most of those rides were intentional. What I don’t understand is how police departments can be so blind to the problems within their ranks. There is, in my mind, absolutely no excuse for the behavior and the tolerance of such behavior.

One thing the police could do to make amends and prevent future problems is to seriously open up Community Policing. In areas where it has been practiced, the cities have seen a dramatic decrease in crime. People who really want to commit a crime, are going to do it, Community Policing or not. But, and that is a big but, Community Policing has been proven over and over to work. Richmond CA is a very good example of police reaching out to the community. There has been a dramatic reduction in crime and people who are most likely to eventually get involved are cut off at the pass as they are asked, and rewarded, for participating.

I was especially struck dumb by the reduction in settlements as I was not aware that happened. It tells me the initial announcement of a settlement is an “appeasement” for the public to go on about their business. I do believe that the 1% is involved, to some extent, in the radicalization of police in this country. I personally think it is in preparation for the 98% uprising, if the people ever really get fed up. That is not looking like it is going to happen anytime soon. Quite honestly, I wonder if they are practicing on the people they think people will care less about? It is no secret that there is a huge divide of the 98% who truly believe Black people are being singled out and those who are apologists for the police and the rich.


Michael, this is an incredibly valuable piece of research. I doubt that many Americans are aware of how prevalent this odious practice has been for a long time. And what also surprised me was how low most of the awards for damages have been. Awards in the $20,000 dollar range for serious injuries? Ridiculous.

I’ve often wondered whether the job makes some people sadistic or whether sadistic people are drawn to this line of work. Regardless, this is a frightening fact of life for anyone who has to deal with law enforcement. One of the things that really creeped me out was the warped sense of humor that would invent the term “screen test” for something that could be so lethal. When people in any profession can joke about something that could make a person a quadriplegic for life, that’s a warning bell. Of course every profession has its ways of dealing with stress via humor (it happened in nursing too), but that one seemed to go many steps beyond just therapeutic kidding around.

It really should be a “firing offense” for any officer(s) to transport a suspect without safely securing that person. There should be zero tolerance. And awards for injuries should be much higher. As others have said — hitting these departments in the pocket book might produce change when nothing else works.

Isn’t it a shame that financial damages have to be the “weapon of choice” because appeals to human decency haven’t seemed to accomplish anything? That’s a sorry state of affairs. And I wish I were smart enough to come up with a plan to fix that. I know about open heart surgery, but unfortunately I don’t know how to fix the human heart in the area of basic decency. If anyone ever invents the “conscience transplant,” that will be a great day for all of us!

In the meantime, I’m hoping and praying that Baltimore stays safe after this announcement of a hung jury. And also that justice is eventually done for the whole community. Thanks again for a terrific article.


Thanks for the article James. I hate to say it, but I think these trials are going to go the way of the cops’ trials in the Rodney King beatings.

I just wish that those who may be manipulating things behind the scenes realize how dangerous and WRONG this could be. This just can’t be allowed to continue. I don’t have the answers needed, but something needs to change, in a big way. Hopefully, a peaceful way.

I also hate to say this, that a continued system of injustice and violence sometimes makes violent protest unavoidable.


James, thank you for this excellent and well researched article, it accurately portrays the sadism that has been baked into at least some of the Baltimore PD.

As you probably know by now, it is a hung jury in this first trial of an officer for the death of Freddie Gray.

The sickening thing about this is that one of the defenses for Officer William Porter was that it wasn’t regular procedure for police to buckle in the people they arrest, hence, he wasn’t violating regular procedure.

So, essentially, the fact that they abuse the people they arrest on a regular basis by not buckling them in and giving them rough rides…was a defense for Porter.

I don’t know if the prosecutors presented the substantial history you recounted of police brutality through rough rides but if they did, this hung jury shouldn’t have happened over such a defense.

So far, there hasn’t been much reaction in the streets of Baltimore to this, perhaps since it’s a hung jury as opposed to a not guilty verdict.

There is so much denial in this country. People don’t want to believe that a meaningful percentage of cops are violent and unprincipled. Or that our justice system is unjust when it comes to people of color and holding those with power responsible for their actions.

This is a severe social crisis in America, it’s been going on for a very long time as your article points out, this disease of racism, hatred and brutality that has infected so many police forces. Addressing that core problem is a huge task and add to that, the enormous task of wringing the injustice out of our courts.

Such a massive core problem for this country and in the end, it can only be addressed when people stand up and force our leaders to take necessary steps. They won’t do it on their own for political reasons which is also disgusting, sitting by and letting police kill and injure citizens with no price to be paid.

I can’t say I’m optimistic about the outcome of this and other trials of officers who killed Freddie Gray. Our current court system doesn’t seem very capable of holding cops accountable even for the most horrible of actions. But I think the (hopefully peaceful) protests that grow after each injustice will eventually prevail in helping to move a majority towards demanding the kind of widespread reform so desperately needed.


Funny, how everyday drivers are required by law to “Buckle Up,” and the cops aren’t required to safely buckle up their passengers…..who have yet to be convicted, much less sentenced to any sort of punishment.