It may no longer be routine for Philadelphia police to take uncooperative suspects on "nickel rides," speeding vans along bumpy streets to jolt them into acquiescence. But the department could do more to make transporting prisoners safe.
Endangering suspects who are high on drugs or alcohol, and who can't properly protect themselves in a rollicking vehicle, serves no good purpose. And it puts the city at risk of losing lawsuits filed by those injured as a result. In one such case 15 years ago, the city paid $1.2 million to a man paralyzed from the neck down.
That was back when it was considered a rite of passage for the city's rookie officers to learn how to drive a van transporting prisoners as if it were a lurching, 5-cent amusement-park ride from long ago. The practice, designed to rough up belligerent prisoners, no longer appears to be common, but it may not have disappeared.
In July, Daniel Waters, 52, ended up in a West Philadelphia hospital for three days after he was taken into custody at his home and transported in a police van. "They started the car up, then they slammed on the brakes," said his daughter, Shanita Jones. "They were running fast." Waters has filed a complaint with police Internal Affairs.
James McKenna, 36, says a jolting ride in a police van two years ago left him with three broken vertebrae. Also in 2011, Ryan Roberts died two weeks after showing up at a hospital with injuries that a lawyer said resulted from an unsafe ride in a police van. His death certificate, however, blamed cocaine intoxication.
At the time of their arrests, McKenna was drunk, Roberts appeared to be high on drugs, and Waters, who told authorities he was bipolar, may have taken too much medicine, according to police. Anyone in such an altered mental state would have a difficult time protecting himself while being bounced around in the back of a speeding police van.
The Inquirer's Sarah Smith and Craig R. McCoy reported Sunday that instead of seat belts, Philadelphia police vans have grab belts, which prisoners, with their hands cuffed behind them, are supposed to grasp. But as University of Michigan transportation expert Lawrence Schneider pointed out, "You can't depend on a person just to hold on with their grip, especially on a belt."
Schneider helped advise the American Civil Liberties Union in Chicago when it successfully fought to block police there from using vans to transport prisoners. Because a van's side-facing seats are considered inherently less safe, other police departments, including Los Angeles', have opted to transport prisoners in squad cars or other safer vehicles.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who declined to be interviewed on the subject, should also consider an alternative to his department's vans for transporting suspects. With an average of 80,000 arrests a year, the likelihood of injuries and successful lawsuits is high. It would be more cost-effective, as well as more humane, for the city to invest in a safer means of transporting prisoners.