Battered cargo: The costs of the police 'nickel ride' In city patrol wagons, suspects slam into walls and slide across the floor. Paying the price are the injured and the taxpayers - not the police.

Posted: June 03, 2001

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.

Top commanders acknowledge that rough rides are an enduring tradition in the department. The practice even has a name - "nickel ride," a term that harks back to the days when amusement-park rides cost 5 cents.

An Inquirer investigation documented injuries to 20 people tossed around in wagons in recent years. Thompson was one of three who suffered spinal injuries, and one of two permanently paralyzed.

Most of the victims had clean records. They were arrested on minor charges after talking back to or arguing with police. Typically, the charges were later dismissed.

Those wagon injuries have cost taxpayers more than $2.3 million in legal settlements, but the Police Department has responded to the problem with a conspicuous lack of urgency.

No Philadelphia police officer has ever been disciplined for subjecting a passenger to a wild ride. A four-year-old plan to make the wagons safer has moved at a crawl - until now.

Those injured in wagons are of widely varying backgrounds and were arrested in different parts of the city. Yet they described their experiences in strikingly similar terms.

They spoke of roaring starts, jarring stops and other maneuvers that sent them rolling across the floor or slamming into walls. With their hands cuffed behind the back, they could not right themselves or cushion the falls.

The injured include:

A disabled postal worker who had argued with a police officer over access to a parking lot. She aggravated a hip injury rolling across the floor of a wagon.

A pastor who saw police subduing a suspect and complained that they were hurting him. She was arrested and loaded into a wagon, where she fell to the floor during a swerving, bumpy ride.

A fish merchant arrested after arguing with a Parking Authority worker over a ticket. He was thrown from a wagon bench and broke his tailbone.

Thompson, 40, has relied on a wheelchair since that night in April 1994. The city paid $600,000 to settle his lawsuit.

But his was not the worst injury in a Philadelphia police wagon.

Calvin Saunders, arrested in South Philadelphia in 1997 driving a stolen car, was propelled from his seat in the back of a police van and rammed his head against a wall.

He ended up a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. To this day, Saunders cannot feed, bathe or dress himself and depends on others for his most basic needs. The city paid him a $1.2 million settlement to help cover his lifetime medical care.

There is no official tally of wagon injuries, no way to know exactly how many people have been hurt.

The 20 cases documented by The Inquirer were culled from court files and records of city legal settlements. They likely represent a fraction of all wagon injuries - those in which the victims hire lawyers and win financial compensation.

Some cities - responding to injuries far less serious than those documented here - have phased out wagons or added safety restraints and padding.

Philadelphia officials have studied the latter idea for years, but not until December did new wagons with seat belts and padding hit the street.

Only 10 of the department's 86 wagons have those safety features. The rest, which transport tens of thousands of suspects every year, are identical to those in which Thompson and Saunders suffered their paralyzing injuries.

Police Commissioner John F. Timoney said he knew of the injury to Saunders but was not aware that officers intentionally subjected prisoners to jolting wagon rides.

"Such behavior - if it does exist - certainly isn't condoned by myself or anybody else in this department," Timoney said.

He added: "We are making efforts, as much as humanly possible, to reduce . . . the number of incidents where prisoners get hurt in the back of these vans."

Timoney's top deputies say that wild wagon rides are mainly a thing of the past.

"We've had some where the person goes flying and hits their head," said Deputy Police Commissioner John J. Norris, head of the Internal Affairs Bureau. "They get taken for a ride."

Norris, a 30-year veteran of the force, said such abuses had diminished greatly and were now "minuscule" in number.

Yet many wagon injuries go undetected by Internal Affairs - even some that resulted in legal settlements.

Of the 20 cases documented by The Inquirer, 11 were never investigated by the Police Department. Norris said he was not aware of the injuries until reporters asked about them.

Of the nine cases that were scrutinized by Internal Affairs, the department took disciplinary action against the wagon officers in only one - the Thompson case - and then for infractions committed after the wagon ride, not for the injury itself.

The punishment: a three-day suspension for the driver, Officer Demetrius Beasley.

A year later, Beasley was promoted to sergeant.

Injury resembles

a diving accident

Police wagons - white Ford cargo vans with two-person crews - are ubiquitous on Philadelphia streets. They patrol neighborhoods and also serve as the department's transport arm, ferrying suspects to district police stations or Police Headquarters for booking.

Police like the wagons because suspects ride in a rear compartment, with a wall separating them from the officers in front. That is considered safer than transporting prisoners in squad cars, which typically are staffed by just one officer.

Wagons are considered especially useful in dealing with combative prisoners or with disturbances that could require numerous arrests.

The passenger compartment is a hard, spare, windowless space - a shell of fiberglass and plastic about 4 feet high, 5 1/2 feet wide and 14 feet deep. The sides are lined with low benches barely wide enough to sit on.

Police commanders say the department purposely did not install seat belts in the older models so that prisoners could not harm themselves with the straps.

Riding in the darkened back, handcuffed passengers have trouble steadying themselves or balancing on the narrow benches.

The practice of cuffing suspects' hands behind the back creates a heightened risk of spinal injury, as Internal Affairs acknowledged in its report on the Calvin Saunders case.

A physician told investigators that Saunders' injury resembled those caused by diving accidents. In such cases, the doctor said, the victim hits a hard surface headfirst, with the head tilted slightly forward.

"This is the natural position of the body when the arms are handcuffed behind the back," the Internal Affairs report said.

The department says its officers are trained to drive wagons with care and that most do.

Officer Paul Costello, who drives a wagon in Center City's Ninth Police District, said he was aware of the risks to passengers and took pains to avoid injuries.

"If somebody gets hurt in the back of that wagon, you have to deal with the consequences," Costello said.

But an officer with a different attitude can turn a wagon ride into a frightening and dangerous experience.

John DeVivo says it happened to him.

On March 31, 1995, he was behind the counter at Ocean City Seafood, his family's fish market on Lancaster Avenue near 41st Street, when he noticed a Parking Authority worker ticketing his wife's car.

An argument ensued. The parking-enforcement officer called police and accused DeVivo of throwing bottles at her. He denied it.

He was arrested, handcuffed, and taken by wagon to the Southwest Detective Division.

"We went two blocks, and they slammed on the brakes," said DeVivo, now 36.

He was thrown from the seat and landed on the floor, fracturing his tailbone, medical records show.

DeVivo, who had no criminal record, sued and collected $11,000. As in all the legal settlements, the city did not admit police wrongdoing. The assault charges against DeVivo were later dismissed.

When the ride was over, DeVivo said, he asked the wagon officers why it had been so rough. He said they told him a dog ran in front of the wagon.

"They were laughing," he said.

Robert Schwartz Sr. broke one of the vertebrae in his neck during a wagon ride. His spinal cord was not damaged, but he said he still suffers pain and discomfort.

Schwartz was arrested April 15, 1998, at Unruh and Bustleton Avenues on a charge of drunken driving - to which he later pleaded guilty.

Officers put him in a wagon and headed south on Interstate 95, toward Police Headquarters in Center City.

"All of a sudden, the brakes were applied very sharp," Schwartz said in a statement to Internal Affairs investigators. "Since I wasn't strapped in or anything, I fell to the floor onto my back."

Schwartz, 44, said he was "propelled forward very quickly" and smashed his head into a wall.

"I heard a loud snap," he said. "I knew something happened."

Officer Thomas A. Walker Jr., the wagon driver, said in an interview that he made no abrupt stops and had no idea how Schwartz was injured.

The city nonetheless paid Schwartz $110,000 as settlement.

"There is no dispute that the plaintiff suffered a neck injury," a deputy city solicitor wrote in an internal memo obtained by The Inquirer. "A Philadelphia jury could return a very large negligence verdict against police officers based on their alleged driving."

The rough ride

shocks suspects

Bernadette Moore was stunned to find herself in the darkened back of a patrol wagon, lying handcuffed on the floor.

Moore, a postal worker from Southwest Philadelphia, had quarreled with a police officer on the night of Sept. 29, 1996.

He had blocked access to the parking lot of a strip mall at 61st Street and Passyunk Avenue as part of a crackdown on drag racing.

Moore, 34, wanted to drive into the lot to bring dinner to her boyfriend, who worked nearby.

She was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The charge was later dismissed and a city lawyer wrote that the rookie officer "overreacted."

But that was of no help to Moore that night. She was handcuffed, and a patrol wagon was summoned.

Moore, who suffers from degenerative arthritis and had had a hip replacement, had trouble getting into the vehicle. So two officers picked her up and put her inside on the floor.

Moore described the ride to the 12th District police station as terrifying.

"They started swerving and slamming on the brakes, and I started flipping all over - and I'm handcuffed," she said. "I was petrified. . . . I couldn't believe it was happening."

Moore, who injured her shoulder and back, collected a $15,000 settlement.

The Rev. Carlice Harris got acquainted with Philadelphia police wagons Feb. 21, 1999. It was a Sunday morning, and she was on her way to church.

Miss Harris, who lives in Edgewater Park, was driving through North Philadelphia, headed for Christ Temple Baptist Church at 16th Street and Girard Avenue, where her congregation was waiting for her to deliver the morning sermon.

She never made it to the pulpit.

In the 5200 block of Montour Street, Miss Harris saw four police officers struggling to subdue a suspect. She said a plainclothes officer kicked the man while the others held him down.

She jumped out of her car and demanded the officer's badge number. Police arrested her. They said later that she was interfering with the arrest and drawing a crowd.

Wearing a mink coat and high heels, Miss Harris was handcuffed, put in a patrol wagon, and taken to the 15th District police station.

"I ended up sliding all over the place," she said. "It was a very rough ride - bumpy, up, up and down hills. They seemed to be just rushing, and I wasn't no murderer."

Miss Harris, 44, injured her face, knee and wrists. She later received a $22,500 settlement from the city. The disorderly conduct charge against her was dismissed.

"I didn't look like a derelict. I'm a pastor," she said. "I thought, 'I can't believe this is happening in America.' "

Rookies learn the ritual

during 'street training'

The "nickel ride" has been around for decades, winked at by generations of police commanders and commissioners.

Rookies learn about it as "part of your street training," said Norman A. Carter Jr., a retired Philadelphia police corporal whose 25 years on the force included a six-month stint as a wagon officer.

When the arresting officers wanted to punish someone in custody, Carter said, they would tell the wagon crew to "take him for a ride."

The practice persists, current and former officers say, because it is a nearly foolproof way to get back at someone who resists arrest or otherwise angers police.

Officers out to settle a score need not use their fists.

Because there usually are no witnesses, injuries can be attributed to busy traffic, bad roads, or a sudden stop made to avoid a cat or dog.

A nickel ride is a way for officers to assert their authority when someone challenges it, said James B. Jordan, a lawyer who reviewed numerous wagon injuries as the Police Department's in-house corruption monitor from 1996 through 1999.

"What better way to show who's in control than stopping at a light and slamming on the brakes, knowing that they're going to go flying?" Jordan asked. "And maybe the prisoner was yelling, and maybe this will shut him up."

Chief Inspector Frank M. Pryor, head of the department's patrol operations, said rough rides were once a common method of punishing recalcitrant prisoners.

In the 1970s, he said, the police ranks included wagon officers who were eager to lash out at uncooperative suspects.

"If you pissed them off," he said, "you were going to get the ride of your life . . . and nobody did anything about it."

But Pryor said such behavior was no longer tolerated.

"If we see that happen, we're on it now."

Police hold no one

accountable for injury

Gino Thompson remembers that it was dark in the back of Emergency Patrol Wagon 2202.

Police had arrested him about 1:40 a.m. on April 10, 1994, at the A-Plus Mini Market at Broad Street and Lehigh Avenue.

Thompson has a record of petty offenses, but he was not charged with a crime that night. Police records state he was taken into custody because of "intoxication."

The wagon headed for the 22d District police station, about a mile away.

"They rolled down Broad Street . . . and they slammed on the brakes, and I slid from the back all the way up to the front," Thompson said in an interview. "When I hit my head, I saw a flash of bright light, and I couldn't feel my hands anymore.

"As soon as my head hit the wall, boom, I heard them laughing."

An Internal Affairs report and a summary of the case by city lawyers describe what happened next:

When the wagon arrived at the police station, the driver, Demetrius Beasley, told Thompson to stand up.

"I can't walk," Thompson replied.

Beasley and his partner, Kevin Powell, dragged Thompson out of the wagon and put him in a holding cell, facedown on the floor.

He lay there, sleeping, for more than an hour, without medical attention. Then, an attendant heard him shouting: "Officer, officer, I'm hurt!" and complaining that he had no feeling in his legs.

An ambulance was summoned.

At Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, doctors determined that Thompson had dislocated two vertebrae at the base of his neck, injuring his spinal cord.

Questioned months later by Internal Affairs, Beasley said he drove the wagon safely, never exceeding 20 mph, and made no abrupt stops.

Powell had been dismissed from the force by then. A woman had accused him of rape - a charge of which he was later acquitted. Powell declined to talk to Internal Affairs about the Thompson case.

Beasley was sanctioned for "neglect of duty" - for failing to get medical attention for Thompson as soon he complained of paralysis. Beasley was suspended for three days.

But no one was held accountable for causing Thompson's injury. Internal Affairs investigators wrote that they "could not prove or disprove that the wagon came to a sudden stop."

Months later, after Thompson sued, the City Solicitor's Office did its own investigation and reached a different conclusion.

The city lawyers interviewed Powell, now a defendant in a lawsuit and depending on the city to represent him.

Powell told the lawyers that Beasley speeded down Broad Street that night and then slammed on the brakes, just as Thompson had described.

Beasley and Powell declined to be interviewed for this article.

An internal memo from a lawyer in the City Solicitor's Office explained why the city paid $600,000 to settle Thompson's lawsuit:

"The plaintiff is likely to be able to prove that the officers gave him a 'nickel ride' of exactly the kind that he described."

The damage inflicted

can last a lifetime

Today, Thompson relies on a wheelchair to get around his tiny Northeast Philadelphia home. He spends much of the day on the living-room sofa, where the television offers a welcome distraction from lingering pain.

After nine operations, he said, he still suffers pain in his right arm and neck.

Thompson once did odd jobs. Now, the family depends on the income of his wife, Shelby, a nursing-home aide.

On good days, Thompson is able to maneuver himself into a specially equipped van and drive her to work.

"That [police] wagon changed a lot," said Thompson, whose 11 children range in age from 5 to 19. "I can't play football with my kids. I can't play basketball. I was a gymnast, a singer, a dancer. I did it all."

Thompson said he was still angry at Beasley. He was furious to learn of the officer's punishment.

"You think a three-day suspension is justifiable for what he did?" he asked. "That isn't even a slap on the wrists."

Thompson said he was saddened to learn that wagon injuries had continued.

"I wish it wouldn't happen to the next person," he said. "I wouldn't wish it on a rat."

Nancy Phillips' e-mail address is nphillips@phillynews.com. Rose Ciotta's is rciotta@phillynews.com.

About This Series

Reporters Nancy Phillips and Rose Ciotta spent six months documenting a pattern of injuries in Philadelphia police wagons - the result of a secretive ritual known as the "nickel ride." The reporters examined hundreds of court files, city financial records and internal memos from the City Solicitor's Office. They interviewed dozens of victims, lawyers, city officials and police officers.

Tomorrow: Why police face no consequences for wagon injuries.

Tuesday: How warnings went unheeded.

* Follow the series online at http://inquirer.philly.com.

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