Injuries evident, but accountability elusive

Posted: June 04, 2001

The Acura Legend that Calvin Saunders was driving that spring day was stolen. When police spotted him in South Philadelphia, he ditched the car and ran. Two officers cornered him a few blocks away, then kicked and pistol-whipped him.

Later, handcuffed and bleeding, Saunders was put in a patrol wagon.

He never walked again.

As the wagon rumbled through the streets, Saunders, then 21, was thrown from his seat and smashed headfirst into a partition. He suffered a severe spinal-cord injury and was paralyzed from the neck down.

The Internal Affairs Bureau conducted a yearlong investigation, interviewing 47 people.

The outcome: No one was held accountable for Saunders' injury.

Internal Affairs said it could not prove that the wagon driver slammed on the brakes with intent to harm Saunders.

It happens time and again: When people are injured in Philadelphia police wagons, police officers face no consequences.

For years, Philadelphia police have punished uncooperative or combative suspects with rough wagon rides. The driver speeds up, stops abruptly or makes sharp turns. The passengers, riding without seat belts and with their hands cuffed behind the back, are thrown against the hard walls and floor.

The practice has been around so long it even has a name: the "nickel ride." An Inquirer investigation documented 20 cases since 1994 in which passengers were injured in this way. Three suffered spinal injuries; two were permanently paralyzed.

Those cases cost taxpayers more than $2.3 million in legal settlements. The largest, $1.2 million, was paid to Saunders, who remains a quadriplegic.

Yet the Police Department's disciplinary system has been toothless in responding to the problem.

The Inquirer asked the department how many times officers had been punished for taking prisoners on wild wagon rides.

The answer: none.

Top commanders say it is hard to pin blame for wagon injuries because there are rarely independent witnesses and the driver can blame a swerve or sudden stop on city traffic.

But that is only part of the explanation.

Police stonewalling can make it difficult to get at the truth. In the Saunders case, Internal Affairs concluded that four different officers lied to investigators about their treatment of the suspect.

Many wagon injuries never come under departmental scrutiny at all - even when the victims are taken to hospitals or collect large settlements.

That is because a requirement that Internal Affairs be alerted whenever someone is injured in custody sometimes goes unheeded.

A hospital visit is supposed to trigger an immediate report by a police supervisor to the department's investigative arm. Often, it does not.

Of the 20 wagon injuries uncovered by The Inquirer, 11 never came to the attention of Internal Affairs, even though the victims needed hospital treatment, department records show.

Asked for an explanation, Police Commissioner John F. Timoney expressed surprise and ordered an investigation into those lapses.

"If you're being stitched up in a hospital . . . Internal Affairs should be notified," he said. "We'll look into it."

Of the nine wagon injuries that were investigated, Internal Affairs recommended disciplinary action in just two: the Saunders case and that of Gino Thompson, who was thrown headfirst into a wall during a 1994 wagon ride and remains paralyzed from the waist down.

In both cases, punishment was recommended for infractions committed before or after the wagon rides that caused the two men's injuries.

As for what occurred inside the wagons, Internal Affairs saw no grounds for discipline.

"It's pretty difficult to prove these cases," said Deputy Police Commissioner John J. Norris, head of Internal Affairs. "To prove deliberateness, you really have to get lucky."

Because nearly all patrol wagons lack seat belts and protective padding, it can be hard to sort out accidental injuries from those inflicted deliberately, Norris said.

"It could be totally unintentional, and you could wind up with a broken neck," he said.

Since injuries occur in a closed-off rear compartment, without anyone laying a hand on the victim, it is easy for wagon officers to deny knowledge or responsibility.

"They'll say a little cat ran in front of the van or 'I don't remember any sudden stops,' " said Alan Denenberg, a Philadelphia lawyer who handles many police-brutality cases.

"The officers will say, 'I don't know what happened. He was on the floor. I assume he jumped.' "

Some cases slip through the cracks

Enzo Nini found himself in the back of a patrol wagon on an August night in 1998. He had attended a bachelor party at a Delaware Avenue nightspot. Club Egypt was emptying out about 1:45 a.m. when a brawl erupted near the entrance.

Nini and Kevin Sirchio, who also attended the party, were arrested, cuffed and put in a wagon.

"We weren't strapped into anything," said Nini, 29, a construction contractor from Princeton. "We didn't even have our hands to hold us up. . . . Our heads were bashing on the wall. Then, they'd speed up again and put the brakes on again."

Nini and Sirchio, a North Jersey physician, said the officers also beat them with nightsticks. Hospital records show that both men suffered gashes that required stitches.

The wagon officers denied driving erratically or injuring Nini or Sirchio. James Gillespie, the driver, said in an interview that the two were hurt during the brawl at the nightclub, not by police.

In any case, Nini and Sirchio were transported to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

That should have triggered a teletype message from the local police district to Internal Affairs.

It did not.

"We have nothing on them," Norris said when asked about the case. "Zero. Nada. . . . If the police took them to the hospital, we should have gotten a report."

The city paid Nini $30,000 and Sirchio $23,500 to settle their lawsuits. Disorderly conduct charges against them were dismissed.

Internal Affairs was never told about Cynthia Corbin, either. She wound up in a neck brace after being knocked around on a wagon ride.

Corbin, then 43, had been arrested at her West Philadelphia home in April 1994 for passing bad checks and using a stolen credit card. She later pleaded guilty to forgery.

Riding in a patrol wagon, she suffered a torn rotator cuff and two herniated disks, according to her federal lawsuit against the city.

In an internal memo, a city lawyer recommended paying her a monetary settlement because the wagon officers could offer "no explanation" for her injuries. She collected $50,000.

Asked about the case, Norris said: "We've got nothing on her."

Investigation may not

mean punishment

The Saunders case was known to, and thoroughly investigated by, Internal Affairs. In the end, there was no punishment for the wagon officers.

Saunders' encounter with police began about 4 p.m. April 1, 1997. Saunders, who has a record of drug and weapons offenses, was driving an Acura that had been stolen from an Ardmore dealership. When police tried to stop him, he jumped out, ran and was captured near 20th and Sigel Streets.

At the First District police station, a sergeant noticed that Saunders was bleeding from behind his right ear and summoned a wagon to take him to St. Agnes Medical Center. Saunders was put in the rear of the vehicle, with his hands cuffed behind the back.

This much is undisputed: During that ride, Saunders' head crashed into a wall in the wagon, dislocating vertebrae in his neck and irreparably damaging his spinal cord.

In piecing together that day's events, Internal Affairs confronted a sharp divergence between Saunders' account and those of police officers.

Saunders said he was injured behind the ear when the arresting officers, Brian Madalion and Brian Sprowal, pistol-whipped and kicked him. Both denied it, but witnesses corroborated Saunders' story.

In its report, Internal Affairs concluded that the two officers had used excessive force and lied about it.

Saunders also told investigators that after the wagon pulled up outside the St. Agnes emergency room, the two wagon officers - Thomas Fitzpatrick and Nancy Morley - ordered him to his feet.

"I said, 'I can't stand up,' " Saunders said. "They dragged me out of the wagon, stood me up, and let go. I collapsed on the pavement."

Fitzpatrick, the driver, and Morley, his partner, gave investigators a different account.

They said Saunders never told them he was paralyzed and never fell to the ground. Rather, the officers said, Fitzpatrick lifted Saunders from the wagon and put him into a wheelchair.

But a firefighter and two police officers who were at the hospital told investigators that they heard Saunders telling Fitzpatrick and Morley that he could not move. These witnesses also said they later saw Saunders lying on the ground, his hands still cuffed behind the back.

Internal Affairs again concluded that Saunders was telling the truth.

On the crucial issue of how Saunders suffered his paralyzing injury inside Emergency Patrol Wagon 101, investigators again faced a stark contradiction.

Saunders said the wagon stopped abruptly, launching from his seat.

"We were riding for about a minute or two when they jammed on the brakes," Saunders said. "I was sitting near the door, and I went sliding to the front of the wagon and hit the top of my head. . . .

"I yelled, 'Help!' but they didn't hear. I was lying on the floor on the wagon. I felt numbness in my neck area and couldn't move my arms and legs."

Fitzpatrick and Morley said the wagon did not make any sudden stops and they never heard Saunders hit the wall or call for help.

"Nothing happened on the way to the hospital to make that injury occur," Fitzpatrick told Internal Affairs.

The report said the wagon officers could not explain how Saunders was injured in their custody. But it did not blame them for causing his paralysis.

Instead, the report said the injury "could be the result of a fluke set of circumstances."

That conclusion was based on a theory offered by Ian Hood, a deputy city medical examiner who reviewed the case for the Police Department.

Hood told investigators that if Saunders stood up during the wagon ride to shift position, "he could have been propelled into the front wall or rear doors . . . even without a drastic change in speed."

The report said: "Hood stated that this sequence of events is a freak occurrence, but could explain the injury."

Madalion and Sprowal, the officers who pummeled Saunders after his arrest, were suspended for 30 days.

Internal Affairs recommended that Fitzpatrick and Morley be disciplined for lying about what happened outside the hospital and for failing to put Saunders on a spinal-injury board.

They appealed to the Police Board of Inquiry, a departmental tribunal, and were cleared of the charges.

Sgt. Roland Lee, a police spokesman, said the department would release no information about the board's reasoning.

Fitzpatrick and Morley, both still on the force, declined to comment.

As for Saunders, he pleaded guilty to unauthorized use of a car, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to two years' probation.

Norris, the head of Internal Affairs, said investigators believed that Fitzpatrick stopped abruptly, despite his and Morley's denials. But he said investigators could not be certain this was done intentionally.

"The case was impossible to prove," Norris said. "They stopped one time. . . . If you're going to be malicious and give somebody a ride, I think you would hit it multiple times."

"Did they screw up afterward? Yes," he said. "Could we prove that they slammed on the brakes intentionally? I don't think we had that."

'They were deliberately

trying to hurt me'

Saunders, 25, spends his days in the wood-paneled living room of a brick rowhouse in Grays Ferry, where he lives with his aunt and her five children.

He needs round-the-clock attention and help with everything from dressing to eating to brushing his teeth. He is cared for by his aunt, Kim Saunders, and an occasional visiting nurse.

Saunders' 7-year-old daughter visits often, as do friends and other family members. Although he is sometimes able to go to the movies or to dinner or a concert, Saunders said, it is often a challenge to fend off boredom.

Lying in a hospital bed in the center of the living room, Saunders spoke without bitterness about that spring day four years ago and how it altered his life.

"It changed everything," he said softly. "It was a drastic change."

Saunders can no longer play basketball, ride his motorcycle, or lift his daughter, Anajamah, onto his knee. The child's name is Arabic for "star."

Saunders said he was troubled to learn the wagon officers had not been punished.

"They were deliberately trying to hurt me," he said.

Saunders, a Muslim, said his faith sustained him.

"God does have a plan for everybody, you know," he said. "I'm just glad I'm still here."

Nancy Phillips' e-mail address is Rose Ciotta's is

Injured? Who's Injured?

When passengers are injured while riding in police wagons, the officers typically disavow any knowledge or responsibility. That is what happened after Calvin Saunders suffered his paralyzing injury during a 1997 wagon ride, according to an Internal Affairs Bureau report.

* Officer Thomas Fitzpatrick, the driver

"P/O Fitzpatrick did not come to any quick stops and did not swerve the wagon. He did not hear any loud noise . . . . P/O Fitzpatrick stated that he did not know the prisoner was injured in his wagon and that nothing happened . . . to make that injury occur."

* Officer Nancy Morley, Fitzpatrick's partner

"They did not make any sudden or unusual stops. She did not hear any noises from the rear of the wagon. She cannot offer any explanation for how Calvin Saunders became paralyzed in their custody."

* Tomorrow: How warnings went unheeded.

* Follow the series online at

comments powered by Disqus