Time to ban 'rough rides'

Apparently, innocent until proven guilty does not apply to the back of a prison van.

The federal, state and local reports on police abuse reform present a host of actions needed, including training, body cameras and improved vetting of officers. But thus far, no one has called for an outright ban on "rough rides." Apparently, innocent until proven guilty does not apply to the back of a prison van; there is no innocence to be found inside its metal interior, which has bruised and broken many a prisoner.

In Baltimore, several people have suffered severe injuries once locked inside the moving cell; one person was left a paraplegic and another a quadriplegic, before both died from complications from their injuries. Collectively, juries awarded those families $46.4 million (this number was reduced due to a settlement and state laws that cap such payouts).

Now comes the case of Freddie Gray, who died inside a Baltimore police van in April, at a time of heightened racial tensions and a blanketed discontent for law enforcement around the country because of recent minority deaths in cities including Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island and elsewhere.

Gray's case has incited nationwide attention specifically to unsanctioned rough rides and the police culture that allows them to occur. While it is not known whether Gray was subject to a rough ride, it's been widely acknowledged that whatever "happened [to him] happened inside the van," as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake put it. And Gray's death and the ensuing riots in Baltimore have provided enough momentum to lead to an official policy against rough rides, both locally and federally. Police departments across the country, including in two Maryland counties, are already considering changes to their prisoner transport regulations, including adding traditional seat belts, interior cameras and padded seats in vans.

Those changes skirt the issue of police behavior, however.

A form of rough ride is when the driver of the van slams on the breaks so a prisoner, often shackled and not wearing a seat belt, is jolted forward, ramming into the enforced divider that separates the officers from the prisoners, causing injuries ranging from broken bones to paralysis. The incidents are common enough to have numerous slang terms — including "screen test" and "bringing them up front" — yet Vince Canales, president of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, told ThinkProgress he is unaware of the practice. It sounds like the union head should interview more police, or simply check what generated the massive settlements.

Mr. Canales further said that no police practices should be blanketly banned but that they should instead be reviewed on a "case by case" basis. That kind of protection of the police culture is part of the problem. Of course there must be a standard policy: Specifically, rough rides must be ended. They are mean-spirited, immoral and immature punishment without trial — with a deadly potential.

At Rikers Island in New York, the police jokingly call rough rides "bus therapy." A New York Times investigation on brutality in the prison found that for Jose Bautista, an inmate at Rikers serving time for a misdemeanor, what was supposed to be a 15 minute ride took close to 9 hours. He suffered perforated bowels that leaked into his abdomen, leaving him in crippling pain and clinging to life. No guard was punished, not even the guards that inflicted the injury.

Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., the driver of Freddie Gray's van, has been charged with "depraved-heart" second-degree murder. In other words, prosecutors believe he didn't care about hurting the victim.

Rough rides are morally wrong; they devalue human lives and disgrace the criminal justice system.

Simply put, they must be banned.

Robert Weiner is former spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and spokesman for the House Government Operations Committee; his email is weinerpublic@comcast.net. Sylvienne Staines is human rights policy analyst for Robert Weiner Associates and Solutions for Change; her email is sylvienne.staines@ou.edu.

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