Philadelphians don’t have any problem figuring out what happened to Freddie Gray, the 25-year old black man who died as a result of a severed spine at the neck while being transported in a police van by Baltimore Police, after being picked up on a trumped up charge when he ran away from two bicycle cops.
Here in Philadelphia, Police have long enjoyed giving arrested men who mouth off to them during arrests what is known fondly in the department as a “nickel ride.” That’s where they put their captive in the back of the van, hands bound behind his back so he cannot hold on to anything or protect himself, and otherwise unrestrained. Then the driver of the vehicle accelerates repeatedly, whips around corners and periodically slams on the brakes, causing the helpless captive in the back to slam against various parts of the vehicle, often with his head.
Back in 2001, an investigative journalism series run by the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed the practice, which had led to numerous injuries of arrested people, and to secret payouts by the department to some of those most grievously injured, including one man who was paralyzed from the neck down by a spinal injury similar to that suffered by Gray. The victim, permanently disabled, received a payment of $1.2 million, the newspaper reported.
The Inquirer exposé led to calls for a halt to the criminal practice, but a 2013 article in the same publication reported that police were back at it again. It cited at least three serious incidents that had led to a lawsuit against the department. One of those victims, 31-year-old Ryan Roberts, a burglary suspect, was delivered to the hospital with injuries all over his body, including to the back of his head. He died later. Though the cause of death was listed by the hospital as “cocaine intoxication,” the lawsuit alleges that he actually died of his injuries, sustained in the van ride, when he was left unrestrained in the back of the vehicle.
In the current Baltimore case, a lawyer hired by Gray’s family says that though he was dragged, unresisting, into the van at the time police picked him up, and was yelling at the cops holding him, when he arrived at the hospital, he was immobile and his spine was “80-percent severed” at the neck. That’s the kind of injury that is hard to cause without a brutal amount of force — the kind of thing that could only be delivered by a deliberate twisting of the neck, or by the body being rammed against an immovable object — exactly the kind of thing that happened all too often in those Philadelphia Police van “nickel rides.”
There is another possibility too, equally horrific, which was suggested to me by a physician with emergency room experience. Viewing the cell phone video one local person took of police picking up Gray and dragging him to the van, this doctor (who contacted TCBH! after reading the initial version of this article), notes that, while Gray was shouting, his body looked oddly limp like a rag doll, his legs grotesquely askew and his feet actually bent backwards as he was dragged so that the laced tops of his shoes, not the toes, were contacting the street, as he made no effort to pick them up.
As this experienced doctor suggests, “To me, the tip-off is that as he’s being dragged. He’s ‘allowing’ the tops of his feet to drag on the ground. That’s pretty typical of someone who’s unaware of it, since the natural impulse is to try and walk. Unconscious people, or those who cannot feel and/or cannot control their legs, are dragged like that. That he was alive, conscious & sensible to pain is clearly evident on the video’s audio. To me, that suggests that his major injury might actually have occurred on the sidewalk before he was lifted up. The images of Eric Garner’s head pinned to the sidewalk by a policeman’s knee suggests a mechanism; especially if another cop were to be trying to roll him in the opposite direction (‘roll on your back, stomach, side, whatever!’) while forcing him in the direction opposite to which his head was being pinned.”
He adds, “Naturally, the major concern of any 1st responder (which includes police officers) to a potential neck injury should be to brace the neck to prevent movement and any further injury. Absent a cervical collar & appropriate medical restraints, a ‘nickle ride’ might well have been all that was needed to convert a partial spinal cord injury (that might have been treated and non-fatal) into a severe non-recoverable one. A sufficient injury to the C-spine will cause respiratory arrest (that’s why hanging works). I don’t know whether or not Mr. Gray was breathing spontaneously upon arrival in the ER. He could have been ‘resuscitated’, intubated, and placed on a respirator for 5 days to allow time to declare him brain dead and to pull the plug in hopes that, with time, the public interest would have flagged.”
Witnesses, including the woman who took the cellphone video, have challenged the arresting officers’ claim that no force was used in arresting Gray. These witnesses say that the slight 145-lb young man was bent backwards and had an officer on his back. In the hospital, he was found to have three cracked vertebra in his neck, with the spinal cord almost completely severed. He survived seven days in the hospital on a respirator before dying of his injury. The US Dept. of Justice is now investigating the case.
Baltimore, a city with a large African-American population, and with a police department that has a history of abusive arrests (the city has paid $5.7 million in court settlements over police brutality during 102 arrests over the last four years. Baltimore also was hit in 2005 with a $7.4-million judgement, later reduced to a statutory limit of $200,000, over the death of a man picked up for public urination who died in a van ride in which he was left unrestrained), is reportedly increasingly on edge over this ugly incident. The mayor and the police chief have both expressed concern about Gray’s death and an investigation is underway into what happened, with six officers involved in his detention and in the van ride currently suspended. But so far, city officials have been circumspect, saying they “don’t know what happened” between the time of his arrest, when he was seen shouting and later reportedly asking for help, and his delivery to the hospital, when he was no longer talking or breathing.
But these city officials aren’t talking about the obvious reality that a spine isn’t something that gets broken during a van ride, unless the victim has been left unrestrained in the back, and unless the driver is deliberately driving recklessly in an attempt to seriously hurt the person in back.
UPDATE, 4/24: Baltimore Police now report that Gray was not strapped in when he was placed in the transport van, though he had his hands cuffed behind his back and later had his feet shackled, making it impossible for him to protect his head and neck while sliding around on the floor of the moving vehicle. Police also say that the department had earlier issued a policy requiring that all prisoners placed in vans be safely restrained with a belt.
This is just the latest example of a nationwide problem: murderous police brutality directed against the poor, and especially against blacks and latinos and other people of color.
Viewed from Philadelphia, what happened to Freddie Gray appears to be no less a murder than was the recent gunning down of Walter Scott with five shots to the back by a North Charleston, SC police officer.
Until police start doing serious time for these atrocious crimes, until the politicians who hire such psychopathic thugs and keep them on the street start losing their jobs, and until the broad public demands that police as a whole stop acting like combat troops in a war zone instead of as “peace officers,” they will keep occurring.