Baltimore police rolling out transport vans with cameras, redesigned interior

New and retrofitted Baltimore police vans will have cameras, redesigned interior to improve and record care of

The Baltimore Police Department is rolling out a fleet of 10 new transport vans and retrofitting 13 others with a redesigned interior and multiple cameras to improve and record the care of detainees in police custody.

The changes come more than a year after the death of Freddie Gray, 25, from spinal injuries suffered in the back of a transport van, which did not have a working camera on the day of his arrest.

The department hopes the new fleet will be fully operational by the end of the summer, officials said Tuesday.

"This is just a best practice to have a configuration that works from an officer-safety standpoint and a prisoner-safety standpoint," said T.J. Smith, the department's chief spokesman.

The new vans have one large compartment at the rear with benches on either side for three detainees each, without a dividing wall between them. They also have a side compartment with room for two detainees. The old vans had two compartments accessed through the rear — with a dividing wall between them — with seating for four detainees on each side.

The rear and side compartments will be used to separate detainees, such as men from women or adults from juveniles, Smith said. As an added safety measure, straps have been placed along the benches for detainees to hold onto while handcuffed.

The new vans have four cameras — one inside the side compartment, two inside the rear compartment and one outside the van that faces the rear loading area. The cameras will record footage, to be kept in cloud storage, and also show live images on a monitor in the driver's compartment.

In February, the city Board of Estimates approved a $187,000 contract with Florida-based Point Blank Enterprises Inc. for camera systems for 13 vans. In January, the board approved a $200,000 contract to purchase dividers to separate detainees under the new configuration. Smith said Tuesday that he could not immediately provide full cost estimates for the 10 new vans and the 13 retrofitted vans.

Gray's death sparked a citywide conversation about the safety of police vans. Gray was handcuffed and shackled, but not placed in a seat belt, which police officials said broke with department policy.

Six Baltimore police officers involved in Gray's arrest were charged criminally by Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby. One officer, Edward M. Nero, was acquitted in May. The other five are awaiting trial, including Officer William G. Porter, whose first trial ended in a hung jury and mistrial in December. The next officer due in court is the van's driver, Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr., whose trial is scheduled to begin Monday.

Questions surrounding how officers are supposed to interact with detainees in vans have been central to the court cases to date, including which officer is responsible for securing detainees with a seat belt, whether the officers involved in Gray's arrest had received proper training in placing detainees in vans, and whether there are legitimate safety concerns associated with officers loading detainees into vans while carrying a firearm.

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, which represents rank-and-file officers in Baltimore, called the upgraded vans a "welcome addition" to the department's fleet.

"The various changes, including the removal of the center partition, make access easier for our officers and the addition of straps provides transported prisoners with another level of security," said Lt. Gene Ryan, the union's president. "The use of the recording cameras will, of course, go a long way toward the prevention of unanswered questions such as those that surround the death of Freddie Gray."

Smith declined to discuss whether Gray's death led to the changes, citing a gag order in the officers' trials that prevents the officers, their attorneys and prosecutors from discussing the cases.

The gag order, issued by Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams, does not apply to the Police Department, but Smith said "the last thing we want to do is to insert ourselves into something and disrespect the judicial system."

Smith said the changes have more to do with the department wanting to be in line with national best practices.

"It's all about best practices. Any time something's changed, you can always look back on something and say, 'Was that the moment?'" he said. "We're moving forward."

krector@baltsun.com

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