When a handcuffed Freddie Gray was placed in a Baltimore police van on April 12, he was talking and breathing. When the 25-year-old emerged, "he could not talk and he could not breathe," according to one police official, and he died a week later of a spinal injury.
But Gray is not the first person to come out of a Baltimore police wagon with serious injuries.
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.
As daily protests continue in the streets of Baltimore, authorities are trying to determine how Gray was injured, and their focus is on the 30-minute van ride that followed his arrest. "It's clear what happened, happened inside the van," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Monday at a news conference.
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."
The lawsuit states she suffered unspecified injuries from the arrest and the ride.
"You feel like a piece of cargo," she added. "You don't feel human."