BALTIMORE — No video captured what happened to Freddie Gray inside the police van where officers heaved him into a metal compartment after pinning him to a sidewalk. The cause of the fatal spinal injury he suffered in police custody has not been revealed. But a troubling detail emerged as crowds gathered for more protests Thursday: He was not only handcuffed and put in leg irons, but left without a seat belt, according to a police union's lawyer.
That may seem innocuous, but unbelted detainees have been paralyzed and even killed because of rough rides in police vans, which used to be called "paddy wagons." It has happened often enough to have a name: "nickel rides," referring to the amusement rides that once cost five cents.
Just six months ago, Baltimore officials released a plan to reduce police brutality and misconduct, some of it involving prisoners transported in police vans. And nine days before Gray's spine was severely damaged under arrest, officers were given an update to their rules: It clearly states that all detainees being transported shall be held down by seat belts or "other authorized restraining devices" for their own safety.
Gray was not belted in, said attorney Michael Davey, who represents at least one of the officers under investigation. But he took issue with the rules.
"Policy is policy, practice is something else," particularly if a prisoner is combative, Davey told The Associated Press. "It is not always possible or safe for officers to enter the rear of those transport vans that are very small, and this one was very small."
The Gray family's lawyer, Billy Murphy, said "his spine was 80 percent severed" while in police custody. It's not clear whether he was injured by officers in the street or while being carried alone in the van's compartment.
But if it happened on the way to the station, it wouldn't be the first such injury in Baltimore: Dondi Johnson died of a fractured spine in 2005 after he was arrested for urinating in public and transported without a seat belt, with his hands cuffed behind his back.
"We argued they gave him what we call a 'rough ride,'" at high speed with hard cornering, said Attorney Kerry D. Staton, who obtained a $7.4 million judgment for the family that was later reduced to the legal cap of $200,000. "He was thrown from one seat into the opposite wall, and that's how he broke his neck."
It's also happened in Philadelphia, where police in 2001 barred transportation of prisoners without padding or belts after The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the city had paid $2.3 million to settle lawsuits over intentionally rough rides, which permanently paralyzed two people.
Gray fled and was captured by police on April 12 after an officer "made eye contact" with him outside a public housing complex. Videos show Gray screaming on the ground before being dragged, his legs limp, into a van. Witnesses said he was crying out in pain.
The same police procedures require officers to get immediate medical help if detainees need it, and take care not to aggravate any injury.
In Gray's case, he repeatedly asked for help during the trip, but the driver instead diverted to another location to pick up another prisoner, and paramedics weren't called until after they arrived at a police station 40 minutes later.
"How did his injuries occur?" said Robert Stewart, a former chief who consults with police and the Justice Department on use of force. "These guys are picking up someone who is obviously injured."
The driver also has a responsibility to refuse to take a seriously injured prisoner to the station if he belongs in a hospital, Stewart said. "If I'm the officer in the wagon, if the guy's hurt, I'm not taking him," he explained.
All six officers involved in Gray's arrest have been suspended with pay and are under criminal investigation. Davey, whose law firm is on contract with the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said five of the six officers gave voluntary statements the day of Gray's arrest, and one declined to speak with investigators.
It's quite common for prisoners to yell and complain, saying they've been injured or feel sick or that their handcuffs are too tight.
"You have to make a judgment call: is this a tactic, something to distract me?" said Lt. Luis Fuste of the Miami-Dade Police Department. "You're taught that these things are often done with an ulterior motive."
Yet Fuste and other law enforcement experts say these rough rides aren't typical and would cause officers too much trouble to risk them.
"Once he is a prisoner he is absolutely your responsibility," said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore officer who now teaches law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "Even if there was no malign intent, even if there was no assault, he's your prisoner. He goes into the wagon alive, he can't come out dead."
The Department of Justice is investigating to determine whether Gray's civil rights were violated, and the police department's internal investigation will be delivered by May 1 to the state's attorney's office to consider filing any criminal charges.
But some details have already been made public as authorities try to restore trust with a community demanding transparency and justice.
Commissioner Anthony Batts said Monday that Gray repeatedly asked for medical attention, and that only after arrival at the Western District station house were paramedics called. "He asked for an inhaler, and at one or two of the stops it was noticed that he was having trouble breathing," Batts said. "We probably should have asked for paramedics."
Associated Press Writers Dave Dishneau and Jeff Horwitz contributed to this story from Baltimore. Anderson reported from Miami. They can be reached at http://twitter.com/Miamicurt , http://twitter.com/ddishneau and http://twitter.com/JulietLinderman