A police officer drives a van with a shattered window April 27, 2015, in Baltimore.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

There were rumors of it from the beginning: Was Freddie Gray a victim of one of Baltimore’s infamous “rough rides”?

They paralyzed one man in 2005, and the city has paid out millions in settlements over these “rides,” in which, after arresting a person, police toss the handcuffed man or woman into the back of a van, not bothering to secure him or her with a seat belt. Officers then take these people on a journey, fast and rough, with jagged, abrupt turns, leaving them jostling around in the van like rag dolls, slamming uncontrollably against the sides of the vehicle. During the ride, the driver will slam on the brakes, causing arrestees to crash into the walls or, if they’re on a gurney, to fall off.

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Baltimore Police Commissioner William Batts suggested that Gray’s spinal injuries may have occurred as a result of Gray’s not wearing a seat belt in the paddy wagon during his transport. Any suggestions are all speculation until reports from the investigation are released. Baltimore Police Department policy also requires seat belts for suspects who are arrested. Still, that hasn’t stopped those protesting Gray’s death from wondering if he was yet another victim of a “rough ride.”

Hassan Giordano experienced this form of police brutality as a teenager. He was dabbling in selling drugs back then, and the police in his Westside neighborhood conducted daily random sweeps on black boys as a scare tactic and as a way to interrogate.

“I was a part of these rough rides in a hot paddy wagon in the summertime in Baltimore,” said Giordano, now an activist and chair of criminal justice for the NAACP. “They wouldn’t turn on the fan or the air conditioner. They drove me around for hours, and you’re suffocating, and then they stop suddenly and you slam your head against the cage.”

On April 12, Gray ran from police after making eye contact with two officers. On cellphone video, Gray’s body is limp, but he’s standing on his own as he gets into the paddy wagon. During transport, his spine was severed and he had a crushed voice box. Gray eventually slipped into a coma and died a week later. Officers said after his death that Gray was carrying a knife, but they did not see it until after his arrest. 

Batts told reporters that “there are no excuses” for not buckling up Gray in the van while he was in police custody being taken to a police station.

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“Rough rides” have a lengthy history. Called “nickel rides” or “cowboy rides” in other regions, police use them as a “witness-free” way to deliver “street justice” to suspects they view as unruly or rude. 

“Rough rides happen all the time, and at the NAACP office, we have men come in all the time and they have wounds on their body,” said Cornell William Brooks, NAACP president and CEO. “Targeting innocent civilians for policing is unlawful and unconstitutional.” 

Brooks said that “rough rides” are not just dangerous and bad policing, they’re also ineffective police tactics for interrogation. “When people respect police officers, they’re much more likely to engage in law-abiding behavior, and you’re more likely to have a conversation about what’s happening in your community,” said Brooks.

“Rough rides have been around since [the] late ’60s and ’70s in Baltimore. They used to be called rodeos. And the paddy wagon then was like a 10-foot U-Haul and sometimes you would go flying out of the truck,” said Michael Eugene Johnson, who works for the Paul Robeson Center for Social Justice. 

Numerous lawsuits have been brought against the BPD because of these rough rides. A report by the Baltimore Sun found that the city has paid millions to victims, like the family of 43-year-old plumber Dondi Johnson Sr. Johnson was left paralyzed in 2005 after being recklessly driven around by police, leading to a $7.4 million settlement.

“The city’s problem is that it allows these things to keep happening. We have repeat offenders in the Baltimore City Police Department who have been found liable for engaging in misconduct, and they’re still on the force,” said Malik Shabazz, national president of the Black Lawyers for Justice during a press conference at City Hall Tuesday.