Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Guy Inside the Police Van

20th Precinct NYPD station on West 82nd street
On a scorching hot summer day back in the late 1990's, I was walking east along West 82nd street towards Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side in Manhattan when I heard this faint banging noise.

Back then I fancied myself a "serious writer" and I often left my apartment on the next block on West 81st street to take a break and walk around and think, or clear my head after long hours sitting at my desk.

Now I tend to be a bit of a cerebral creature by nature, and the linear logic of  New York streets enabled me to walk around the Upper West Side on auto-pilot while my mind was miles away; not unlike a trance of sorts.

So I was bopping along in my own world as I was walking past the 20th Precinct station of the NYPD (pictured above) when this hollow banging noise caught my attention; I was across the street from the station in just about in the exact same position from where the photo above was taken.

I turned and noticed one of those NYPD police prisoner transport vehicles double-parked in the street, and there was a group of two or three cops just standing there about ten feet behind it talking amongst themselves.

I was across the street and I couldn't hear what they were talking about, but it didn't appear as if it was anything urgent, one of them was smiling and they looked to be sort of just shooting the breeze.

Then I heard the banging again, and I stopped because I could hear that it was someone inside the back of the van banging on the metal wall; like he was pounding to get someone's attention.

Now it wasn't a "van" with windows like you see officers riding around in, it was a prisoner transport van with solid walls on the back section where the people were kept.

The vehicle seen in the photo above isn't the exact same kind of vehicle I saw, but it was very similar, except the rear section was larger; but it had a similar chassis with double-tires on the back like the one in the photo.

I searched for photos online, but it was at least 17 years ago and the NYPD is now using different vehicles to transport prisoners and suspects.

When I stopped, I noticed how hot it was outside, it was humid, there was no breeze and the sun was beating down on the section of the street where the van was stopped and the engine was off; so there was no AC or anything - the guy banged on the wall again, and I heard his muffled voice from inside.

"Yo man, c'mon, it's hot in here!" he said, his voice sounded exhausted and pleading. He wasn't rude or anything, and I could tell he was African-American. I stood there looking at the van, trying to imagine what it was like in that confined metal interior space with the sun beating down and no circulation.

For the first time, I notice a couple of other local residents nearby in front of their Brownstones listening to the man's voice inside the van too. The group of officers behind the van saw us watching and seemed to shift uncomfortably, suddenly one of the cops walked closer to the rear of the van called inside.

"Take it easy." he said, "We'll be leaving in few minutes and I'll turn the AC on."

The man inside grumbled about something, but he seemed to quiet down. I don't know how long the van was parked there, and it's possible the cops were there waiting to pick up another person to be transported - it was hot out so I don't think they were just standing there for their own health.

As I walked off towards Columbus Avenue, I couldn't get the sound of the guy's voice inside the van out of my head, even though I never saw him. Questions kept ringing in my head, What had he done to be in there? Where were they taking him? Had he eaten, or had something to drink? Did his family know he was in there? 

Even though I was only there a couple of minutes, I never forgot his voice or the sound of him banging on the wall of the van; a faceless human being in distress. Not life-threatening, but distress none the less.

Baltimore PD Officer Caesar Goodson
As you may have figured, I share that brief story because I'm still troubled about the news that Caesar Goodson, the Baltimore PD officer who was driving the van that Freddie Gray was fatally injured in, was found not guilty and acquitted.

My point in sharing that story, was simply to try and illustrate that an individual who's locked in the back of a police van has his or her life in the hands of the police.

So if that person is hot, or cold, or needs to use the bathroom, they're at the whim of the police.

Or, in the case of Freddie Gray, if someone is injured and needs medical assistance, and they weren't injured before they were placed inside the van by the police, then that's the responsibility of the police as well - so from a legal standpoint, I'm confused as to how the court doesn't hold any of these officers legally responsible.

If you're reading this you've probably already heard the news reports about the acquittal, so I only want to say that there's something deeply troubling about the fact that it appears none of the police officers in this case are likely to face any kind of legal repercussions for the death of Freddie Gray.

Freddie Gray wasn't rich, or famous, or perfect for that matter; he certainly had a police record.

But on that day back on April 21, 2015 he hadn't done anything to warrant his arrest and there's still no adequate explanation for why he was actually detained and put in the van in the first place.

But while he was in the van his neck was broken, not because of an accident, but because the BPD officers who arrested him failed to secure him in the seat belt in accordance with proper procedure, and the driver intentionally gave him what's known as a "Rough Ride".

It's well known that if a suspect or individual is uncooperative, rude, or acts up with police, they'll arrange for him or her to get a "rough ride" to the station.

It's also known as a "joyride", "cowboy ride" or a "screen test" in reference to the fact that the unsecured individual will get slammed into the metal screen that separates the back of some police transport vehicles from the front where police officers sit.

Freddie Gray
It means the driver of the police van will intentionally slam on the brakes, jerk the wheel, run over potholes or accelerate in such a manner as to cause the person in the back to be thrown around into the walls - that's why Freddie Gray's neck was broken so severely he went into a coma and died.

That's not some kind of administrative error, an accident, or a mistake - it's an intentional act, and an innocent man died because of it while he was in the custody of the police.

The fact that there will be no legal repercussions because of that is troubling on a number of levels, and as Jean Marbella and Scott Dance wrote in an article for the Baltimore Sun on Thursday, this case has much larger implications for community policing, officer conduct and the ability of the judicial system to hold police officers accountable for intentionally injuring or killing innocent people in custody.

As Ebony Elliot, a 39-year old resident of the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore where Gray was killed told Baltimore Sun reporters in an interview:

"If everyone would care, not just in this moment for Freddie Gray, but for human life itself, the world would be a better place."

Unfortunately Officer Caesar Goodson didn't see Freddie Gray as a human back on April 21, 2015.

To Goodson, he was just a guy inside the police van.

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