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Chairman's Message, Editor's Choice, FreeState

Time to End “Rough Rides” in Maryland

Posted: May 4, 2015 at 7:53 am   /   by   /   comments (0)


One of the most basic responsibilities of any municipality is to protect its citizens’ public safety. Unfortunately, Maryland’s largest city has failed to do so on multiple occasions.

Baltimore’s failures include not only the tragic death of Freddie Gray, but also the victims of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake ill-advised decision to give “those who wished to destroy, space to do that.”

These public safety failures are not isolated incidents. Baltimore has the fifth-highest murder among major U.S. cities, according to statistics released last fall by the FBI. Only Detroit, New Orleans, Newark, and St. Louis are higher. And both Detroit and New Orleans saw sharp declines.

While other large cities, such as New York and Washington, have made significant strides reducing crime, Baltimore’s improvements have been far more modest. Washington’s murder rate is now half of Baltimore’s. New York City’s murder rate has dropped by 85% since 1990.

When cities fail to keep their residents safe, the proverbial “haves” leave town because they can, leaving the “have-nots” who cannot behind. The result produces a more desolate and isolated economy.

The outcomes in Washington and New York are sources of potential optimism. As both cities became safer, they also experienced economic renaissances, as residents and economic opportunities returned.

Baltimore’s tumult also lays bare the deep distrust that many residents have for their city’s police. Among the most disturbing revelations about Baltimore, the practice of a “rough ride” is especially distressing. This is an unsanctioned police practice during which a handcuffed prisoner is placed in a police van without a seatbelt, and is thrown violently about as the vehicle is driven erratically. That the practice is apparently common enough in Baltimore to have its own slang term should be very alarming.

Baltimore has repeatedly been on the losing end of lawsuits from “rough ride” victims. Relatives of Dondi Johnson Sr., who was left a paraplegic after a 2005 police van ride, won a $7.4 million verdict against police officers. In 2004, Jeffrey Alston was awarded $39 million by a jury after he became paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a van ride. Others have also received payouts after filing lawsuits.

Not to belabor the obvious, but Martin O’Malley was Baltimore’s Mayor in 2004 and 2005. He should have taken the initiative to stamp out “rough rides” once and for all. As if the serious abuses these lawsuits uncovered were not already enough, did not then Mayor O’Malley also have a financial incentive to take more decisive action to stamp out the practice?

Regrettably Baltimore is not alone in experiencing policy custody abuses.

Last year Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed legislation that requires an outside investigation when people die in police custody in that state. It requires reports of custody death investigations throughout the state to be publicly released if criminal charges are not filed against the officers involved. Officers also must inform victims’ families of their options to pursue additional reviews, available through the U.S. attorney’s office, or a state-level investigation. According to some, this Wisconsin legislation is the first of its kind in the nation.

Maryland should consider similar legislation as an important step to ending the abuses of “rough rides’ and restoring faith in our criminal justice system.