‘Rough Ride’

10 Years Before Freddie Gray, Baltimore Police ‘Accidentally’ Snapped a Perp’s Spine

A man accused of public urination rode in a similar police van, suffered a spinal injury, and died.

04.23.15 9:25 AM ET

Freddie Gray gave a cry of pain as the arresting officers hoisted him to his feet. Something seemed wrong with his legs as he was dragged in handcuffs to a police van.

“Look at his leg!” a witness can be heard shouting on a cellphone video. “That leg look broke! His leg look broke! You all dragging him like that!”

But the 25-year-old’s legs do not seem to have been the source of the pain that caused Gray to cry out again. His head was hanging down, and he may have already suffered a spinal injury such as could have been exacerbated by a failure to immobilize his head and neck before moving him.

More likely, he suffered the devastating and ultimately fatal spinal trauma after he was placed in the van.

“Something happened in that van,” Michael Davey, lawyer for the Baltimore police union, said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Something like what happened in 2005 to another Baltimore man, who also suffered ultimately fatal spinal injuries after being placed in a police van.

In the earlier spinal injury death, 42-year-old Dondi Johnson was arrested for public urination and loaded into a police van similar to the one that would later be used to transport Gray.

“Mr. Johnson got into the back of the van without assistance,” court papers say. “He obeyed the officers’ commands and did not threaten any of the officers or act violently.”

Johnson gave no sign that he was in physical distress when he was locked in the van with his hands cuffed behind his back. Police Officer Nicole Leake would later testify that she failed to put him in a seatbelt as required by Department General Order K-14 because the nature of the charge against him suggested he had a full bladder.

Leake would deny that she gave him what is known in Baltimore as a “rough ride,” where the van is driven in such a fashion as to jounce and jangle the prisoners. She did estimate that she reached a nearby police station in less than half the time it would have taken at the speed limit.

“When she arrived at the District and opened the back door of the van, Mr. Johnson was lying on the floor of the van and could not move,” court papers say.

Leake asked two other officers to take Johnson from the van.

“She did not call for medical assistance because Mr. Johnson did not ask for it, and she thought he was lying,” court papers say.

Police Officer Michael Riser asked Johnson to get up.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

“[T]he bitch was driving like an a--hole,” Johnson replied, according to court papers. “I fell and I can’t move.”

Riser would testify that he knew from his training and from responding to car accidents that “if someone has a suspected neck injury, the first thing you do is stabilize that patient…you don’t move that patient.”

But Riser would insist that he also thought Johnson was faking.

“Officer Riser asked Mr. Johnson if he wanted ‘a medic,’ or if he wanted the officers to take him to the hospital,” court papers say. “Mr. Johnson replied: ‘Just take me to the hospital.’ Officer Riser testified that a prisoner faking an injury usually asks to be taken to the hospital.”

Riser and another cop carried Johnson from a van to a radio car. They secured Johnson with a seatbelt, as he had not been secured in the van.

“[Riser] stated that he did not intend to injure Mr. Johnson when he took him out of the transport van and drove him to the hospital,” court papers say.

After his arrival at the hospital, Johnson was interviewed about how he came to be injured. Records say he reported “that he was handcuffed and the wagon made a sharp turn, [he] fell, hitting face first and [heard] a pop and blacked out.’”

Johnson underwent surgery for a serious spinal injury. He died two weeks later, and his family filed suit.

“After having inflicted permanent, serious and life threatening injuries to [Johnson], these Defendants made no attempts whatsoever to administer first aid or medical care,” the complaint alleged. “Specifically, notwithstanding [Johnson’s] complaints of numbness and an inability to move, these Defendants failed to immobilize [Johnson’s] neck, failed to obtain emergency medical assistance, and simply transported [Johnson] from the back of the paddy wagon/police van to another police vehicle, unsecured and without adequate stabilization, after he had sustained significant injury. Thereafter, they drove him, unsecured and unstabilized, to the hospital.”

A noted biomechanics expert, Dr. Michael Woodhouse, appeared as a witness for the plaintiff. He testified that “given the nature and the extent of Mr. Johnson’s injuries and the forces required to create them…the van had to have been driven in an aggressive manner.”

The cops were found civilly liable. No criminal charges were brought. And the incident was largely lost to public memory by 8:39 a.m. on April 12.

That was when Freddie Gray reportedly met the gaze of Baltimore Police Lieutenant Brian Rice and fled for reasons we may never know.

The lieutenant and a pair of bicycle cops caught up with Gray one minute later and two blocks away, tackling him but apparently neither requiring nor using force to subdue him. One of the cops drew a Taser but reholstered it without using it.

Gray was apparently having trouble breathing, as he asked for an inhaler. He seems not to have had one on his person, though he allegedly did have a knife in his right front pants pocket.

As has been affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, Gray had committed no crime simply by running from the police. The cops decided that possession of the knife was enough to justify an arrest. They called for a van to transport their prisoner.

The van arrived soon after. A cellphone video shot by a civilian witness suggests that the cops were not abusive as they dragged Gray up to the rear of the vehicle.

But they do not seem even to hear his cries of pain. They also do not take any precautions that would have been standard if there were any reason to believe Gray had suffered a spinal injury.

“They need a spinal board, a neck collar,” Woodhouse said on Wednesday.

The police union would later allow that Gray was not placed in a seatbelt, despite the lesson that should have been learned from Johnson’s death a decade before. Gray was reportedly loaded in headfirst and face down on the floor.

The van set off but pulled over minutes later, reportedly so one of the cops could finish some paperwork. Perhaps it was the report that The Baltimore Sun would later obtain, which says Gray had been arrested “without force or incident.”

At this point, Gray is said to have been “irate,” though he may have simply been in dire distress, thrashing because he was in pain and not getting enough oxygen. The police response was to place him in leg irons, but apparently still no seatbelt.

Less than 10 minutes later, the van started up again. The cop at the wheel then radioed for backup to take a look at Gray.

Why exactly that might have been needed is not yet clear. What is known is the driver was notified during the next few minutes that a second prisoner needed transporting. The van reportedly arrived at the appropriate stationhouse with two prisoners in the back.

Gray was found to be in such serious condition that an ambulance was summoned. The paramedics presumably demobilized his head and neck before rushing him to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, one of the very best in the country.

He underwent two surgeries for multiple fractures near where the spine meets the head and for damage to his larynx. That would suggest that he suffered trauma to both the front and back of his neck.

“What we don’t know, and what we need to get to, is how that injury occurred,” Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez told the press. “When Mr. Gray was put in that van, he could talk, he was upset, and when he was taken out of that van, he could not talk and he could not breathe.”

Six cops have been suspended with pay. Four investigations are under way. And a whole city is demanding to know how a second Baltimore man had come to die from spinal injuries after being picked up for a minor offense and loaded into a police van.

And we still have the question of why there was a first one.