At the time of Freddie Gray's death last spring, the Baltimore Police Department had been waging a nearly three-year campaign urging officers to use seat belts for detainees transported in police vans, newly obtained documents show.
The department sent memos to commanders stressing seat belt use, held training sessions on the practice and regularly conducted unannounced spot checks to make sure detainees were secured in vans, according to documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request.
The campaign started in May 2012 after several detainees sued the department for injuries allegedly received while being transported. By September 2014 — seven months before Gray's arrest — a department spot check of 17 transported prisoners found that all 17 had been buckled into seat belts, the documents show.
Gray died in April of a severe spinal cord injury sustained in police custody after he was placed unsecured in the back of a transport van, the state medical examiner's office found. The office concluded that the death could not be ruled an accident, and was instead a homicide, because officers failed to follow safety procedures "through acts of omission."
City Solicitor George Nilson said the spot checks, called audits, show the Police Department was taking seriously the issue of prisoner injuries in police vans. "I know they were paying attention to the issue," Nilson said.
The audits also suggest that the education campaign was working, which could help prosecutors prove some of the most serious charges against the officers involved in Gray's arrest, said David Jaros, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.
"It would mean they were more aware of the risk of harm and chose to go about it anyway," Jaros said.
Prosecutors would have to prove that the officers had been aware of the education campaign, he said. If they could, he said, "it would bolster their argument that the officers acted recklessly when they failed to seat-belt Freddie Gray."
Legal observers said the Police Department's concerted effort to prevent detainee injuries during transport could figure prominently in the trials of the officers charged in Gray's death.
"If there's a [more than] two-year educational plan that's being implemented citywide, that suggests that the officers were made aware or should have been aware of the dangers of transporting prisoners unrestrained like Freddie Gray," said Douglas Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor.
"If I'm the lawyer for any of the police officers, I'd like to know if they were present when this educational plan was being implemented," Colbert said.
Six officers, including the driver of the transport van, have been charged in Gray's arrest and death. They have pleaded not guilty, and the first of their separate trials is scheduled for late November. The charges range from misconduct to second-degree murder.
Lawyers for the officers did not respond to emails requesting comment. The judge overseeing the cases recently imposed a gag order on prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The audits began in 2012 when then-Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld grew concerned about detainees being injured in police vans, the documents show. Several detainees had sued the agency, alleging they had been hurt in police vans — most notably the relatives of Dondi Johnson Sr., who won a $7.4 million court judgment after he was left paralyzed, and soon died, after a 2005 police van ride that fractured his neck. (An appeals court reduced the award to $219,000 due to a state cap.)
The results of the May 2012 audit were sobering. Inspectors checked 18 vehicles transporting 34 detainees. Not a single detainee was put in seat belts.
In the report, Maj. Martinez Quteaz Davenport Sr., commanding officer of the Police Department's Inspection Services Division, expressed his concern to Bealefeld.
"The injuries are resulting from some prisoners falling out of their seats while the aforesaid vehicle is in transport," he wrote. "Some prisoners are falling out of seats because officers are not securing prisoners in seats with the use of a seat/restraint belt."
Davenport went on to emphasize the role management needed to play.
"Just as it is very important for shift commanders and sector supervisors to check on a daily basis to ensure their subordinates are wearing protective body armor, it is very important for supervisors to check during their tour of duty to ascertain if their subordinates are using seat/restraint belts on prisoners," Davenport wrote in a memo.
The documents suggest the department stepped up its efforts to make sure officers knew about the seat belt policy. Shift commanders were directed to "ensure that prisoners transported in prisoner transportation vehicles are secured with a seat belt" by instructing officers and conducting periodic inspections.
This month, the city agreed to pay a woman $95,000 to settle a lawsuit that included allegations that she was subjected to a "rough ride" in a police van in June 2012 — a month after the first audit.
Christine Abbott, who filed the federal lawsuit, said she was thrown in the back of a police van, not buckled in a seat belt and "maniacally" driven around after her arrest at a party in Hampden. She was slammed against the van's wall during the ride, according to the lawsuit.
When officials approved the settlement, Nilson said the alleged "rough ride" was not a key issue in the city's decision. Abbott was not injured in the van, he said, adding that the driver denied operating it erratically. Of greater concern to city officials, he said, was that during Abbott's altercation with police, one of her breasts was left exposed.
In such settlements, the city and police do not acknowledge wrongdoing.
In September 2012, Anthony W. Batts took over as commissioner. Documents show he and his commanders also urged seat belt use.
Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez wrote a top internal affairs commander, Col. Garnell Green, in February 2014, expressing concern that "a number of injured arrestees" had filed claims against the city.
"Garnell, we need to make sure we publish something advising officers of our policy to seatbelt all prisoners being transported," Rodriguez wrote. "You will also have to ensure we put something out at roll calls advising officers to seatbelt prisoners and that we will be auditing same."
The agency informed all department employees that inspectors would be "randomly conducting seat belt inspections in all prisoner transport vehicles," according to the documents.
In April 2014, the communications division began developing a seat belt training DVD to play at roll calls, the documents show.
A year later on April 3, 2015 — nine days before Gray's arrest — the department issued a newly strengthened policy. It said officers "shall ensure the safety of a detainee when a person is taken into custody, including obtaining medical treatment when necessary, at the nearest emergency medical facility." The policy said that "all passengers, regardless of age and seat location, shall be restrained by seat belts or other authorized restraining devices."
The toughened policies and subsequent inspections in the months before Gray's arrest led to increased seat belt use, the documents show.
In April 2014, an audit found that 20 out of 22 prisoners were wearing seat belts, a rate deemed "satisfactory" by inspectors. By September 2014, when an audit showed all prisoners in police vans were wearing seat belts, inspectors deemed compliance "excellent."
Charging documents in the Gray case say he "suffered a severe and critical neck injury as a result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained" in the transport van after being arrested in West Baltimore.
In the days immediately after his death, the Police Department conducted another audit and found eight of nine detainees wearing seat belts. The officer who was driving the van with an unbuckled detainee was written up, documents show. The officer's name was redacted by the Police Department.
"These audits show improvements over the years with compliance to seat belt policies," Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith said Saturday. "It also shows the importance of these policies. While we strive for perfection, we recognize the need to continue with audits like these. Our goal is 100 percent all the time for prisoners and officers alike."
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.