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Baltimore's "rough rides": the city has paid out millions to people injured in police vans

A protestor at Freddie Gray's funeral.
A protestor at Freddie Gray's funeral.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Freddie Gray died of a mysterious spinal cord injury a week after a rough arrest by Baltimore police and a ride in a police van. If that fatal injury occurred during his ride to jail, Gray wouldn't be alone.

The Baltimore Sun reports that the city's police department has been sued before over "rough rides": when a police van is driven recklessly, injuring detainees in the back who are often wearing handcuffs but not seat belts.

He was handcuffed and placed in a transport van in good health. He emerged a quadriplegic.

The Sun's Doug Donovan and Mark Puente list four people who were injured in police vans, some of whom won civil lawsuits against the city:

Relatives of Dondi Johnson Sr., who was left a paraplegic after a 2005 police van ride, won a $7.4 million verdict against police officers. A year earlier, Jeffrey Alston was awarded $39 million by a jury after he became paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a van ride. … The most sensational case in Baltimore involved Johnson, a 43-year-old plumber who was arrested for public urination. He was handcuffed and placed in a transport van in good health. He emerged a quadriplegic.

A 27-year-old assistant librarian who was arrested after a noise complaint described the experience:

According to the suit, officers cuffed Abbott's hands behind her back, threw her into a police van, left her unbuckled and "maniacally drove" her to the Northern District police station, "tossing [her] around the interior of the police van."

"They were braking really short so that I would slam against the wall, and they were taking really wide, fast turns," Abbott said in an interview that mirrored allegations in her lawsuit. "I couldn't brace myself. I was terrified."

A deputy public defender for the city told the Sun she doesn't believe the practice is widespread, but apparently it's common enough — in Baltimore and elsewhere — that police have several nicknames for it: such as "screen tests" and "bringing them up front," which refer to slamming the brakes in a van so that the prisoner in the back hits the screen between the driver's seat and the rest of the vehicle.

A September 2014 Sun investigation revealed that the city has doled out millions of dollars in settlements in the past four years for police brutality cases. As onlookers try to make sense of the violent and destructive protests rocking the city right now, the backdrop of "rough rides" and brutality lawsuits provides some meaningful context.

Watch: Why filming the police is so important

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