‘Rough Ride’ in Police Van May Have Caused Freddie Gray’s Fatal Spine Injury

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A protester holds a sign that reads "What happened to Freddie?" during a protest across the street from the Baltimore Police Western District on April 23, 2015.Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Baltimore officials say they’re still investigating how Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, received a fatal spine injury when he was taken into police custody on April 12, but a new detail provides a possible explanation. Gray was in handcuffs and leg shackles when he was put into the back of a police van, but Police Commissioner Anthony Batts acknowledged, “He wasn’t wearing a seat belt and that’s part of our investigation.” According to the Baltimore Sun, the practice known as “nickel rides” or “rough rides” — in which officers deliberately swerve and stop short to hurt unbelted detainees — has killed or seriously injured several people in Baltimore. The Associated Press reports that just nine days before Gray’s arrest the police department updated its rules, which state that detainees must be strapped in when being transported after an arrest.

Attorney Michael Davey, who represents at least one of the six officers suspended over Gray’s arrest, argued that it may be too dangerous for officers to properly secure suspects. “Policy is policy, practice is something else,” he said. “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.” However, Commissioner Batts said there are no exceptions. “It’s our responsibility to make sure people are safely transported, especially if their hands are behind their back,” he said.

Videos show Gray screaming as he was dragged into the van, and when he was removed he wasn’t able to speak or breathe. Dr. Ali Bydon, an associate professor of neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told the Sun that if Gray’s spine was already injured, those symptoms could have come on even if police weren’t trying to toss him around during the drive. “It can be a progressive, cumulative loss of function if the spinal cord is unstable and unprotected,” Bydon said. “You don’t need tremendous force to follow up on further injury to the spine — a force you and me can take because we have stable necks, but that an unstable neck cannot withstand.”

In an interview with the Sun, Gray’s friend Kevin Moore, who filmed one of the videos of the arrest, said he believes he may have sustained the fatal injury even before he was put in the van. He said while Gray was lying handcuffed on the sidewalk, one officer had a knee on his neck and another was folding his legs, pushing his heels into his back. “They had him folded up like he was a crab or a piece of origami. He was all bent up,” Moore said. He said whenever the injury occurred, he’s convinced police were to blame. “He didn’t put himself in a coma. He didn’t fracture or crack three of his own vertebrae,” Moore said. “He didn’t sever his own spine.”