Why risky wagons remain on streets While officials study van upgrades, injuries continue.

Posted: June 05, 2001

The evidence has been accumulating in city legal files for years: People get hurt in Philadelphia police wagons, sometimes badly.

In April 1994, Gino Thompson suffered a severe spinal injury while riding, handcuffed, in a patrol wagon that had no seat belts or padding. Thompson was thrown headfirst into a wall and paralyzed from the waist down.

Three days later, Cynthia Corbin was tossed around in a patrol wagon and injured badly enough to require a neck brace.

Nine months later, in January 1995, it was Charlene Browne's turn. Browne was thrown face-first against an inside wall of a wagon. She, too, was released from the hospital in a neck brace.

The parade of injuries did not stop even after Calvin Saunders was paralyzed from the neck down during a wagon ride in April 1997.

In fact, of 20 wagon injuries documented by The Inquirer in a review that went back seven years, half occurred after the Saunders tragedy.

Why are these wagons still on the road - and in most cases still lacking even rudimentary safety features?

Because police commanders and city officials were slow to recognize the safety problem. And when they did, they were slow to adopt the obvious solution: equipping the vehicles with seat belts and padding.

Even as the list of injuries and taxpayer-funded legal settlements grew, city officials did not hurry to make the wagons safer. Instead, they studied how to do so.

Not until December, after more than three years of discussion and planning, did a handful of wagons with seat belts and padding hit the street.

Even now, only 10 of the department's 86 patrol wagons have those safety features.

So, if you were picked up by Philadelphia police today, the odds are overwhelming that you would be transported in a wagon just like those in which Thompson and Saunders were paralyzed.

The department now says it will launch an all-out safety effort, buying dozens of new wagons and retrofitting old ones so that the entire fleet will have belts and padding by 2003.

Attorneys for the injured say that should have happened years ago. They contend that the city dithered while people were harmed in vehicles whose dangers were well-known.

Police brass say the long wait was unavoidable.

"Granted, it's taken a long time, but . . . we had to be sure" the new vehicles "would satisfy all of our needs," said Deputy Police Commissioner Thomas J. Nestel, who oversees the department fleet.

Nestel said the injuries to Thompson and Saunders did not trigger an urgent response because they were "aberrations."

"When you look at the number of people we transport in those vehicles . . . overall our safety record is good," he said.

Saunders' attorney, Fortunato N. Perri Jr., said he was dumbfounded to discover, while researching his client's 1997 case, that Thompson had suffered a similar injury only three years earlier.

"And they're still using these wagons," Perri said. "It's frightening."

Tens of thousands ride

in the vans each year

Patrol wagons - specially modified Ford cargo vans - transport about 70,000 suspects a year to district police stations and Police Headquarters for booking.

Suspects ride with their hands cuffed behind the back, on low, narrow benches, in a closed-off rear compartment. They can easily be thrown to the floor or against the walls if the driver accelerates suddenly, slams on the brakes, or makes sharp turns.

In a "nickel ride," wagon officers use those tactics to punish uncooperative or combative suspects.

The 20 cases documented by The Inquirer cost taxpayers more than $2.3 million in legal settlements. The victims, a racially diverse group from widely varying backgrounds, described a common experience: roaring starts, sudden stops and sharp turns that sent them hurtling onto the floor or against the walls.

Thompson, then 32, was arrested April 10, 1994, outside a North Philadelphia convenience store after a drunken argument with a girlfriend. He was thrown from his seat during a wagon ride to the 22d District police station.

Thompson sued and received a $600,000 settlement.

Corbin, then 43, was arrested April 13, 1994, at her West Philadelphia home for passing bad checks and using a stolen credit card. She later pleaded guilty to forgery.

Riding in a wagon to Police Headquarters, Corbin was thrown against a wall when the driver made a jolting stop, she contended in a lawsuit. She collected a $50,000 settlement.

Browne, then 27, was moving belongings into a storage facility at Front and Shunk Streets in South Philadelphia early on Jan. 31, 1995.

When a police officer stopped to investigate, an argument ensued. Browne was arrested for disorderly conduct, a charge later dismissed.

The wagon in which she was riding speeded up going down a hill, Browne told Internal Affairs investigators.

"He went fast," she said of the driver, "and when he stopped . . . I hit face-front into the wall of the van."

In April 1997, while Browne's attorney was negotiating a settlement with the city, Saunders was thrown headfirst into a wall during a wagon ride and paralyzed.

In an internal memo, the city lawyer handling Browne's lawsuit expressed concern that, in light of Saunders' injury, Browne might be able to prove "a pattern and practice" of wagon injuries.

That could have exposed the city to a costly jury verdict if the case went to trial. To avoid that possibility, the city settled with Browne for $9,000.

Saunders, who suffered his injury after he was arrested for driving a stolen car, later received a $1.2 million settlement.

Still, the wagons remained on the street, without seat belts or padding.

This spring, city lawyers drafted papers for yet another settlement.

This one involved William J. Provence Jr. of Southwest Philadelphia, who suffered a herniated disk in his neck on Feb. 14, 1998, when a patrol wagon stopped abruptly.

In an internal memo, Deputy City Solicitor Linda S. Battistini said that if the case went to trial, a jury could find negligence on the city's part - "especially considering that there are no restraints to prevent prisoners from being tossed about."

The city paid Provence $37,500.

Lawsuits were not the only source of warnings about wagon injuries.

During its investigation into the Saunders case, Internal Affairs consulted Tan Yuen, a Temple University physics professor.

Yuen said a key factor in such injuries was whether the victim's head struck a padded surface or - as in Saunders' case - a bare, hard one.

"A softer wall, or a wall with a soft covering, would absorb most of the force," the Internal Affairs report said, summarizing Yuen's comments.

The report was issued in April 1998. A week later, Robert Schwartz Sr., arrested for drunken driving in Northeast Philadelphia, fractured a vertebra in his neck while riding in a patrol wagon.

He escaped paralysis but complains of continuing pain and numbness. The city paid him $110,000.

Schwartz's attorney, George F. Schoener Jr., said it was no surprise that wagon injuries had continued.

"If the policy is that you don't secure people on the bench, things like that are going to happen," he said.

Safety concerns noted

before Saunders' injury

Carlton L. Johnson, a chief deputy city solicitor, said he alerted the Police Department to a safety problem with wagons even before Saunders' injury.

In early 1998, city officials contacted Havis Shields Equipment Corp., a Warminster firm that modifies vehicles for police use.

Mark Sundy, operations manager for the company, said city officials told him: "We've been sued in the past. Let's try to come up with a solution."

The effort gained impetus in March of that year, when John F. Timoney became police commissioner. Having heard about the Saunders case, Timoney had a wagon brought to Police Headquarters so he could look it over.

"I looked at what the seating arrangements were," he said in an interview. "It seemed to make sense to me that some kind of restraining device should be put in there."

Timoney said he expected that safety features would be added to wagons already in the fleet as well as newly purchased ones.

For two years, Police Department vehicle managers and city fleet experts worked with Sundy to develop a safer wagon. They contacted other police departments and studied a variety of vehicles and safety options.

The city wanted the vans to continue to serve multiple purposes - transporting evidence and equipment as well as handcuffed suspects. That ruled out some safety features, such as interior partitions to keep prisoners from sliding around.

Seat belts were also a difficult issue. They had been available in the Ford vans for 10 years, and Havis Shields has long recommended them to its customers, Sundy said.

But seat belts had never been installed in Philadelphia's police wagons. Top commanders say they feared prisoners would harm themselves with the straps.

As the planning group weighed various safety options, police representatives again rejected individual lap belts, this time citing the need to protect officers.

With individual belts, officers would have to climb into the wagon to secure a prisoner. Police said this would leave officers vulnerable.

The planning group developed an alternative - a single large seat belt on each side of the wagon, securing all prisoners seated on one of two facing benches. Officers can pull the belts in place from the rear of the wagon, without having to get inside.

Still, "there was skepticism that this was the solution," Sundy said.

So a test wagon was put into service in October 1998. In addition to the seat belts, it had foam-rubber padding on the front wall and rear doors and molded seats with dividers to keep passengers from sliding around.

The test vehicle got high marks. By December 1999, the planners were confident that they had solved the problem.

Last year, when the city put in a routine order for 10 replacement wagons, it arranged to have the vehicles fitted with the new safety features for an additional $1,300 each. The first of those vans hit the street in December.

But contrary to Timoney's expectations in 1998, the department did not upgrade any of its existing wagons. Only the new ones had the seat belts, padding and seat dividers.

The plan was to continue phasing in new vans at the rate of 10 per year. At that pace, it would have taken until 2008 to retire all the old models.

In March, after The Inquirer had raised questions with city officials about wagon injuries, the city accelerated its safety program.

Instead of the expected 10 new wagons, the city will buy 25 over the next year, and it will pay Havis Shields to retrofit 25 older wagons. The total cost: about $900,000.

Nestel said that he expected to secure additional funding to replace or retrofit the entire fleet by 2003.

Gary Stowell, a Haddon Heights lawyer and former police officer who was a consultant on Saunders' case, said it was hard to fathom why the department did not do that years ago.

"They had notice," he said. "I just can't see using these wagons without seat belts. I just don't believe the fact that they're criminals means they should be treated like cattle."

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

* Read this series online at http://inquirer.philly.com.

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