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Most police vans in Baltimore region lack seat belts

Most police vans in the Baltimore region lack seat belts.

Two Baltimore-area police departments say they're reviewing their practices for the transport of prisoners in the wake of Freddie Gray's death from an injury that prosecutors say he suffered in the back of a police van.

The reviews by the Howard and Baltimore County police departments come as a survey by The Baltimore Sun found that prisoner transport vans used by county law enforcement agencies generally are not equipped with seat belts.

City officers involved in Gray's arrest are accused of violating department policy by not placing him in a seat belt. Gray suffered a fatal spinal injury while unrestrained in the van, according to Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby.

The Sun's survey found that vans used to transport suspects in Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties do not have seat belts. The Carroll County sheriff's office says one of its two police vans has seat belts.

In Howard County, police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said her agency has two vans, which have straps across the lower back of each seat for handcuffed prisoners to hold. Because of Gray's death, Llewellyn said, the department is considering adding new features — possibly padded safety bars, traditional seat belts, or a video monitoring system.

In Baltimore County, suspects arrested on the street usually are driven to a precinct in a police cruiser, where they are placed in seat belts, police spokeswoman Elise Armacost said. The county also owns 10 vans that are sometimes used, none of which have seat belts for prisoners, she said.

"We are currently reviewing complex and ambiguous federal and state law relevant to the wearing of seat belts," Armacost said. She said the department does not support adding seat belts to the vans, saying it could be unsafe for officers to buckle an uncooperative prisoner in such a confined space.

"The issue of prisoner safety is about a lot of things other than seat belts," she said. She pointed to features such as straps suspects can hold behind them, and limits on the number of people who can be in a van.

A lawyer who has represented people who claim they were given "rough rides" by Baltimore police argues that vans lacking seat belts are unsafe for the people in custody — even if a prisoner has a strap to hold onto.

"They're like metal prisons," lawyer Stephen Norman said. "There's metal all over these things. There's bolts sticking out. … You can slide back and forth."

The federal government has no regulations for transporting prisoners, according to U.S. transportation officials. Such policies are decided by individual law enforcement agencies and private transport companies, based on state laws about occupant protections.

Under Maryland law, passengers in the rear of a motor vehicle must wear a seat belt unless the vehicle is specifically exempted, as school buses are, said Buel Young, a spokesman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration. Young said he was not aware of an exemption for police vans. Some local departments say they do not believe vans are required to have the belts.

The accrediting body for law enforcement agencies says departments should have policies on the safety of detainees during transport, but does not require the use of seat belts in vans.

Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott has said he plans to hold hearings on the state of the city police department's fleet of vans. Police had pledged to replace them last year but scrapped the plan. Officials said last month they are checking all of the vans to make sure they're outfitted with proper restraints and are considering putting cameras inside.

City police officials did not respond to requests about when their policy requiring seat belt use took effect and why they put it in place. The policy is unique in the area.

"I've never actually seen a seat belt in the back of a wagon," said David Rose, second vice president for Baltimore County FOP Lodge No. 4.

Rose said buckling in a prisoner would be impractical in some cases.

"Someone who's fighting you and resisting, it would be a very difficult task to seat belt them," he said.

Not all agencies use "wagons," as the vans are sometimes called.

Maryland State Police do not have vans, said Sgt. Marc Black. A person in custody typically rides in the front seat, next to a trooper, and must be seat belted.

In Carroll County, vans are used only for taking prisoners between the county detention center and the Circuit Court, which are in the same complex, said Cpl. Jon Light, a spokesman for the sheriff's office. Only one of the agency's two vans has seat belts, he said.

During longer rides, sheriff's deputies use a vehicle with seat belts, Light said.

In Harford County, prisoners are taken to the Interagency Processing Center near Bel Air in a police cruiser or SUV "99.9 percent of the time," according to Maj. John Simpson of the county sheriff's office.

Prisoners are put in the back seat, Simpson said. "That keeps you away from the deputy and the deputy away from you," he said.

Prisoners are buckled in seat belts, unless deputies fear they could be injured by a prisoner while they secure the belt, Simpson said.

On the "rare occasion" that a prisoner is disruptive or dangerous, Simpson said deputies use one of the two prisoner transport wagons the department owns. They also use the vans during raids or other times when deputies expect to arrest several people at once.

The vans have aluminum benches on each side of the rear compartment, with straps for prisoners to hold behind their backs. The side-facing seats do not have seat belts.

Simpson said the benches with no seat belts are standard among most police agencies.

"Like most agencies, it's the responsibility of the deputy who has taken someone into custody and the deputies that assisted. They are responsible for the safety of the prisoners … as long as they have them in our custody," Simpson said.

In Anne Arundel, prisoners are usually handcuffed behind their backs and seat belted in the front seat of a police cruiser, said police spokesman Lt. T.J. Smith. He said officers can keep a better eye on them there.

If the police car has a barrier between the front and back seats, the prisoner is placed in the back.

After booking at a district station, a contractor operating vans takes prisoners to a district court commissioner for an initial bail review, Smith said. The contractors' vans do not have seat belts, but do have straps for prisoners to hold.

Smith said the incident involving Gray is a "teachable moment" for police officers and a reminder to follow policies on how to safely transport prisoners.

"We think we have good policies and procedures in place to protect prisoners when we place them in our custody," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin George contributed to this article.

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