Phila. police begin own 'nickel ride' probe

Posted: June 08, 2001

The Philadelphia Police Department has launched an internal investigation into 20 cases, detailed in an Inquirer series earlier this week, in which handcuffed suspects were injured during jarring rides in police wagons.

Investigators yesterday were pulling files on the cases and assembling information for Deputy Police Commissioner John J. Norris, head of the Internal Affairs Bureau.

"We're reviewing all of the cases," said Lt. Thomas Fournier of Internal Affairs.

The aim is to determine whether any of the injuries resulted from police misconduct and why 11 of the 20 cases originally went undetected by Internal Affairs.

Also yesterday, City Council voted unanimously to hold public hearings into wagon injuries. Council gave its Public Safety Committee, which will conduct the hearings in the fall, power to subpoena witnesses and documents.

"Everything is on the table," said Councilman Angel L. Ortiz, chairman of the committee. "We are looking into everything that has been reported and everything that's brought to our attention.

"Not everybody who rides in those vans is guilty of crimes," he said, "and even if you are guilty, you shouldn't be getting punishment before you get a trial."

Police Commissioner John F. Timoney did not respond to a request for comment on the Council action.

The Inquirer articles described a longstanding practice of punishing criminal suspects with jolting rides in patrol wagons.

For years, the Police Department used its fleet of wagons to transport people in custody to local police stations and Police Headquarters for processing. About 70,000 suspects a year rode in the modified Ford cargo vans.

All but 10 of the 86 wagons lacked seat belts or padding. Suspects rode in a windowless rear compartment, on low, narrow benches, with their hands cuffed behind the back.

They could easily be thrown against the floors or the bare, hard walls if the wagon driver accelerated or stopped abruptly or made sharp turns.

In a "nickel ride," a decades-old practice in Philadelphia, officers used those tactics to punish suspects who resisted arrest or otherwise angered police.

The 20 injuries documented by The Inquirer cost taxpayers more than $2.3 million in legal settlements. Two of the victims were permanently paralyzed.

On Tuesday, the final day of the three-part series, Timoney took the dramatic step of ordering that the 76 wagons without seat belts and padding be pulled from the street immediately.

Those vans will be retrofitted with safety equipment over the next few months. During that time, suspects will be transported in squad cars.

In a resolution approved unanimously yesterday, Council said it was proceeding with hearings, despite Timoney's action, because "there are still too many policy questions and issues of accountability that remain unanswered."

Among those, Ortiz said, is why 11 of the 20 cases went uninvestigated.

Fournier said Internal Affairs also wanted an answer to that question.

"Some of them we have no information on, and we're trying to figure out how come Internal Affairs didn't get notified," he said.

Of the nine cases involving wagon injuries that did receive departmental scrutiny, Internal Affairs recommended disciplinary action against police officers in just two, for infractions committed before or after the wagon rides.

No Philadelphia police officer has ever been disciplined for causing injuries with a wild wagon ride, The Inquirer found.

Ortiz said he rode in a police wagon a year ago, after he was arrested at a protest at Broad and Cherry Streets. He was handcuffed, put in a wagon with 15 others, and driven to the Ninth District police station.

"It was very uncomfortable," Ortiz said. "When you are handcuffed, there's no way to maintain leverage."

Referring to the Council hearings, he said: "All of this . . . has to do with changing the culture of the way people are treated when they are arrested."

Nancy Phillips' e-mail address is nphillips@phillynews.com.

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