How Common Are Police ‘Rough Rides’?

by Patrick Brennan

Last week, the Baltimore Sun ran a piece on a number of tragic incidents where alleged “rough rides” from Baltimore Police drivers, in which they swerve and speed to throw handcuffed, unbuckled suspects around the back of police vans, have dealt serious injuries to the victims (tradition goes, to punish those who’ve resisted arrest). It seems quite possible something like that could have dealt the injuries that led to the tragic death of Freddie Gray, though we still have no idea. The Philadelphia Inquirer published an investigation of the practice in that city in 2001, also finding a noticeable number of incidents where rough rides led to grievous injuries and big settlements. 

But it’s far from certain how widespread this practice is — the number of injuries it’s led to is disturbing but not huge. A couple quotes from the Sun story leapt out at me:

Natalie Finegar, the deputy public defender for Baltimore City, said she does not believe rough rides are a common practice in Baltimore — or she would have heard about it.

This isn’t a prosecutor or, like most of the skeptics quoted in the story, a former cop. Those sources can be reliable too, but Finegar has no reason to downplay the practice’s prevalence. And the criminal-justice expert the Sun talks to doesn’t think it’s that common either — anymore:

University of South Carolina professor Geoffrey Alpert, an expert in police force, said rough rides are also known as “screen tests.” When police cars or vans had screens between the front and back seats, drivers would stop short — “to avoid a dog” — sending a handcuffed prisoner flying face-first into the screen, he said.

“Cops used to laugh about it. That was big in the 1980s and 1990s,” Alpert said. “It was obviously against policy and illegal. I remember in some trainings that police chiefs would say, ‘You’d better bring the damn dog you were trying to avoid if you come in with a prisoner with such an injury.’”

Alpert added, “Now a lot of these vans and cars have videos in them. So it doesn’t happen very often.”

It’s horrific that this is how cops ever treated people as a matter of common practice or tradition — but it’s also apparently less common, if Alpert’s right, than it used to be, in part because of cameras in vehicles. The Baltimore Police apparently don’t have cameras in their cars, or at least didn’t have one in the vehicle that held Gray. That’s a measure that seems like it would be quite easy to implement and would help stamp out however much of a culture there is of dealing “rough rides.” (Body cameras for cops are often considered such an obvious idea, too, but that idea has stalled in Baltimore over privacy and budget concerns. It’s cheaper and more discreet at least recording what happens in cop cars.)

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