Baltimore’s Freddie Gray Died in Police Custody — Could the Same Thing Happen Here?

The Philadelphia police department has a long, disturbing history of giving prisoners abusive "nickel rides."

On the morning of April 12, a handcuffed Freddie Gray was placed in the rear of a Baltimore police van. He was not buckled in. When he was removed about 45 minutes later, he had a crushed voice box and severe spinal injuries. Gray died a week later, and now Baltimore is roiling.

We don’t know yet what happened to Gray, but the timeline has investigators focused on his trip in the back of that police van, and speculation is rampant that Gray was treated to a “rough ride,” or as it’s been called in Philadelphia, a “nickel ride.”

What is a nickel ride, exactly? Well, it’s nothing new in Philadelphia. Let this 2001 Inquirer investigation by Nancy Phillips and Rose Ciotta explain:

Gino Thompson stepped into the police van an able-bodied man.

He emerged paralyzed from the waist down.

Thompson had been arrested outside a North Philadelphia convenience store after a drunken argument with a girlfriend over a set of keys. Police put him in the back of a patrol wagon, his hands cuffed behind his back.

The low, narrow benches had no seat belts. The bare, hard walls had no padding. As the wagon headed south on Broad Street, toward the 22d District police station, the driver accelerated – “like they were going to a fire or something,” Thompson said.

Then the wagon came to a screeching stop, Thompson and one of the officers recalled.

Thompson was launched headfirst into a partition and suffered a devastating spinal-cord injury.

“They took me right out of the store and into the wagon, and that’s the last I walked,” said Thompson, father of 11 children. “That wagon changed my whole life.”

Thompson was a victim of a secretive ritual in Philadelphia policing: the wild wagon ride, with sudden starts, stops and turns that send handcuffed suspects hurtling into the walls.

The Philadelphia Police Department said it would put an end to nickel rides after the Inquirer’s series, and some changes were indeed made. Police vans without seat belts or restraints were pulled from the street and given belts. But the vans remained in use, and in 2013, the Inquirer revisited the story, highlighting three recent lawsuits by plaintiffs alleging they were victimized by nickel rides. One of those plaintiffs, who’d been picked up following a dust-up with an off-duty copy, settled for $490,000 just last year.

So do nickel rides persist in Philadelphia, or not? The Inquirer didn’t get an answer from the police department when it wrote about McKenna’s settlement in 2014, and Philly mag’s Joel Mathis decried Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey’s unusual silence on the issue a year earlier.

Given events in Baltimore, this seems like a good time for the department to publicly address what it is, or isn’t, doing to put an end to nickel rides.