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Baltimore City to spend $200,000 to improve police van safety

Dividers will be added to Baltimore's police vans to make them safer for passengers and police.

Baltimore's spending board agreed Wednesday to buy $200,000 in equipment that police say will improve the safety of their vans.

The money will pay for more dividers to further separate detainees.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the Police Department chose the changes after studying ways to improve the vans' safety.

The issue was at the center of the case of Freddie Gray, who died last April after sustaining a severe spinal cord injury in the back of a police van.

Six officers have been charged in his arrest and death; all have pleaded not guilty.

Rawlings-Blake said the goal was to improve the vans for passengers and police. The Board of Estimates voted to authorize the Police Department to add new dividers to 13 existing vans and 10 more that the department is buying.

The city has paid out millions of dollars to detainees injured in the back of police vans. The family of Dondi Johnson Sr. won a $7.4 million court judgment after his neck was fractured during a van ride in 2005. Johnson was paralyzed and died a short time later.

The city is also buying video cameras to record the rides. Officials received bids from six firms last month to supply the equipment.

The cameras, which come with GPS and touch screens, are to be installed in all 23 vans. They will cost between $43,000 and $632,000, depending on which bid the city selects.

A. Dwight Pettit, a veteran Baltimore defense attorney, called the decision to upgrade the vans "a good move."

"The Freddie Gray trial has demonstrated what a lot of us have been aware of for a long time, that the vans were unsafe and prisoners in the van were very susceptible to what they call the 'rough ride,' " Pettit said. "I've known many people to complain about that as punishment."

Doug Ward, the director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, said police vans weren't originally designed with safety in mind.

"The [old] van was designed for convenience to clean it and make sure nobody could escape," he said.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, a member of the Public Safety Committee, said he wanted the Police Department to consider outsourcing prisoner transport, as departments in some other cities do.

That could help defuse tensions between police and the men and women they transport, he said, and possibly save the department money.

Short of that, Scott said, retrofitting the fleet will help prevent injuries to other detainees.

"There is no doubt that we must change the way we transport prisoners," said Scott. "Anyone who does not understand that has not paid attention."

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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