The city of Baltimore is in a state of emergency right now. Riots have erupted over the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Gray, who was arrested for possessing a switchblade, was put into a police van. When he emerged, his neck was shattered and he would later die of severe spinal injury. And this isn’t the first time someone has been seriously injured by a Baltimore PD van ride:
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. Others have also received payouts after filing lawsuits.
For some, such injuries have been inflicted by what is known as a “rough ride” — an “unsanctioned technique” in which police vans are driven to cause “injury or pain” to unbuckled, handcuffed detainees, former city police officer Charles J. Key testified as an expert five years ago in a lawsuit over Johnson’s subsequent death.
Christine Abbott, a 27-year-old assistant librarian at the Johns Hopkins University, is suing city officers in federal court, alleging that she got such a ride in 2012. 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.”
In fact, the city of Baltimore has paid out $6.3 million in settlements for police brutality just since 2011. Report indicate rampant and widespread abuse. When you add in the city’s problems with crime and lawlessness, it has been a powderkeg for a long time. There is some evidence that complaints are down under the new Mayor. But I suspect this situation will not resolve any time soon, especially if the officers involved are not indicted or are acquitted.
The protests since’s Gray’s death have been peaceful. But starting over the weekend, hooligans have been taking advantage of the situation to engage in looting and violence, which has exploded into today’s chaos. The police are also claiming they have “credible threat” that gangs intend to retaliate against the police. Let’s hope some order can be brought to the situation.