UPDATED: April 23, 2015 7:24 p.m.
BALTIMORE (WNEW/AP) — No video captured what happened to Freddie Gray inside the police van where officers heaved him into a metal compartment after pinning him to a sidewalk.
The cause of his fatal spine injury has not been revealed.
But a troubling detail emerged as hundreds of protesters converged on City Hall again Thursday: He was not only handcuffed and put in leg irons, but left without a seat belt during his trip to the station, a police union’s lawyer said.
We've taken two individuals into custody at Pennsylvania Avenue and Pitcher Street for disorderly conduct and destruction of property.— Baltimore Police (@BaltimorePolice) April 23, 2015
Unbelted detainees have been paralyzed and even killed by rough rides in what used to be called “paddy wagons.” It even has a name: “nickel rides,” referring to cheap amusement park thrills.
“We have received numerous requests to photograph the interior of our prisoner transport vans. The interior of the prisoner transport van is part of an ongoing investigation and we are unable to allow media access at this time,” Baltimore Police said in a statement to the media Thursday. “The Baltimore Police Department has a policy requiring all prisoners to be properly seat belted during transport.”
Assistant Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said Gray was secured by “leg irons” after he became agitated during the trip, but the department hasn’t said whether he was left otherwise unsecured.
According to attorney Michael Davey, who represents at least one of the officers under investigation, Gray was not belted in.
But he took issue with the rules.
“Policy is policy, practice is something else,” particularly if a prisoner is combative, Davey told The Associated Press. “It is not always possible or safe for officers to enter the rear of those transport vans that are very small, and this one was very small.”
“It is not always possible or safe for officers to enter the rear of those transport vans that are very small, and this one was very small,” Davey said.
That April 3rd policy, updating a 1997 policy that also required detainees to be secured, is standard nationwide, said Robert Stewart, a former police chief who consults with departments and the Department of Justice on procedures the use of force. Stewart said strapping them in with seatbelts is “not the Torah,” but should be adhered to whenever feasible.
The Gray family’s lawyer, Billy Murphy, said “his spine was 80 percent severed” while in custody. It’s not clear whether he was injured by officers in the street or while being carried alone in the van’s compartment.
But if it happened on the way to the station, it wouldn’t be the first such injury in Baltimore: Dondi Johnson died of a fractured spine in 2005 after he was arrested for urinating in public and transported without a seat belt, with his hands cuffed behind his back.
“We argued they gave him what we call a ‘rough ride,'” at high speed with hard cornering, said Attorney Kerry D. Staton. “He was thrown from one seat into the opposite wall, and that’s how he broke his neck.”
Staton obtained a $7.4 million judgment for the family, later reduced to the legal cap of $200,000.
Gray fled and was captured by police on April 12 after one officer “made eye contact” with him. Video recordings outside the public housing complex outfitted with surveillance cameras show Gray screaming on the ground then being dragged, his legs limp, into a van.
Witnesses have said Gray was crying out in pain when he was loaded into the wagon.
Roughly 40 minutes then passed before police said Gray was taken to a hospital in critical condition with the severe spinal injury that led to his death a week later.
Police Commissioner Anthony Batts met with members of Gray’s family, the department announced Thursday.
Today #PCBatts met with members of the Gray family, listening to their pain & expressing his sympathy. He updated them on the investigation.— Baltimore Police (@BaltimorePolice) April 23, 2015
Davey said he believes the fatal injury happened inside the police van. The assistant commissioner suggested as much as well.
“I know that when Mr. Gray was placed inside that van he was able to talk, he was upset,” Rodriguez said Monday at a news conference. Rodriguez said Gray became “irate” and that the van stopped so that officers could shackle his legs. Then, “when he was taken out of that van, he could not talk and he could not breathe.”
But Stewart, the police practices consultant, cautioned against focusing solely on how Gray was transported.
“How did his injuries occur?” Stewart said after watching the videos. “These guys are picking up someone who is obviously injured.”
The same policy requires arresting officers to determine if medical help is needed and take care not to aggravate any injury. The driver also has a role, and should refuse to take a seriously injured prisoner to the station if he belongs in a hospital.
“If I’m the officer in the wagon, if the guy’s hurt, I’m not taking him,” Stewart said.
All six officers involved in Gray’s arrest have been suspended with pay and are under criminal investigation. Davey, whose law firm is on contract with the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said five of the six officers gave voluntary statements the day of Gray’s arrest, and one declined to speak with investigators.
The transport policy clearly states that arresting officers must “ensure medical treatment for a detainee is obtained, when necessary or requested, at the nearest medical facility.”
Commissioner Anthony Batts said Gray repeatedly requested medical attention during the ride, and that only after arrival at the Western District station house were paramedics called.
“There were several times he made a medical request,” Batts said Monday. “He asked for an inhaler, and at one or two of the stops it was noticed that he was having trouble breathing, we probably should have asked for paramedics.”
Earlier this week the Department of Justice announced that it has opened an investigation into Gray’s death to determine whether his civil rights had been violated. Rodriguez said the department’s investigation will be completed by May 1 and delivered to the state’s attorney’s office to consider filing any criminal charges.
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