Ah another day another allegation of Police Brutality, this time in a Prisoner Transport Vehicle. I recall when Kent Constabulary received these vehicles for use. The basic idea is fairly old, that unruly or multiple prisoners can be transported with minimal damage to the regular cruisers, and freeing up officers to continue patrol. However after they had been issued, the reality was found to be quite different. Firstly, I must link to a prior post about one of the most fruitful car chases I had while driving a Prisoner Transport Vehicle, when I got to stand up in Crown Court in full uniform and inform the defense barrister in a very offended tone that “It was not a high-speed pursuit..” in a small diesel panel van with a heavy steel cage inside.
Well after an initial breaking in period, while we figured out how to assign the vehicles, it became clear that whoever was assigned to the vehicle was in for a pretty rotten shift. If the shift was shorthanded, it didn’t usually get assigned, but if there was enough officers, and you happened to be low on the totem, or on a supervisors hit list for messing up something, you got assigned to CZ65, the prisoner transport vehicle. This meant you would not be assigned to any interesting calls, instead you would get any heavy paperwork calls where your being tied up for ages really was not a problem because your patrol function really didn’t matter. And so crews assigned to CZ65 found themselves often patrolling alone, or with a probationer constable, taking on Sudden Death investigations, burglary, criminal mischief type calls. All this while other crews got the exciting stuff, which you got to go along to afterwards when the fight was over and pick-up other officer’s prisoners and transport them to the nick for the officer to deal with.
After I had given my notice with the stated intention of emigrating to become a Police Officer in the USA, I spent a LOT of time driving this vehicle, alongside manning the satellite station front desk.
Sometimes fun stuff would happen with the vehicle, like my chase. In fact, it could be said that the chase really only occurred because we had this vehicle. We had been taksed with a paperwork-heavy racial incident, and had to go hide somewhere so we could complete the paperwork, which meant we were in a perfect position to see the stolen vehicles. If we had been a regular patrol vehicle, we would have bene too busy with regular calls to sit quietly and have something go right by us, which says a lot for the effectiveness of random patrol versus tasked dispatching.
Once one of the probationer officers was assigned the vehicle on a particularly quiet winter night, and being a smoker, he wanted a surreptitious smoke, so he nipped into the back and found that the doors automatically lock. So there he was stuck in the back of the paddy wagon, with the key, but couldn’t make it to bend his wrist around to get the key in the lock from the inside, and the steel cage acting as a Faraday Cage preventing his personal radio transmission from getting very far. Luckey for him he was found after a few hours, and not by a supervisor, and he had not been missed.
So this state of affairs continued for a while, until, as usually happens, someone messed up. As often happens, people being arrested take it out on the officers involved, and as sometimes happens, the officers take it personally. Sometime is very difficult NOT to take it personally, when you are verbally abused, merely because you put on the uniform to go to work, some people choose to very cruel, knowing that you really cannot retaliate because they have not committed any criminal act.
Unfortunately in one case the officers decided to retaliate, after the suspects had been arrested, put in handcuffs and placed in the back of the prisoner van, they were subject to a wild ride, acceleration, which threw them all around the inside of the van, but of course their hands were restrained in rigid handcuffs so they could not save themselves from falling badly, and as a result ended up with some very serious injuries, including broken bones, injured spines. Once the van arrived at its destination Police Station, the Custody Sargent refused custody, called for ambulances and the fertilizer really hit the windmill.
So one of the things to come out of it was that we were to have an officer accompany the suspects in the back of the van at all times. It certainly seemed to make sense, and would prevent any further problems, until one day I arrested a person with diminished capacity, who was a very large fellow. I put the handcuffs in front of him, as per the new regulations for prisoners seated int he back of the van, and sat in there with him. He was fairly odd anyway, and quite quiet, then suddenly about half-way through the journey back to the station, he tried to cover my foot with his as he grabbed my shirt with both hands, which led to quite a wrestling match as I took him to the floor of the van.
So there I was, sitting on-top of him in the back of the van, my radio useless in the steel cage, only a couple of feet away from a colleague who couldn’t hear my shouting over the noise of the van’s diesel engine. I managed to kick the metal partition enough for him to notice what was happening and call for back-up, and we rode the rest of the way with half of a tactical unit in the back of the van with me.
Now what one of the tactical officers tried to do was what I had attempted to as I arrested the subject, which was start a rapport with him, ask questions about him, seem interested, which is a technique most officers use to establish a relationship with suspects, working on the theory that if the suspect sees that you are interested in them as a person, they are less likely to attack you/ Of course in this case it was a non-starter, but more often than not it is fairly effective, but you have to give some of yourself, either information or some personal effort to show interest in the suspect, which anyone can get jaded too after a while.
Obviously the officers who had tried to take retribution out on the prisoners in the back of the van, causing them permanent injuries, were past the point of establishing a rapport with their prisoners, and in my example, the prisoner was in himself beyond being capable of establishing a rapport. If you do not have an officer in the back with the prisoners, it can lead to accusations of injury while the vehicle was being driven. If you do have an officer in the back with the prisoners, that officer is trapped in a locked steel cage with suspects who may or may not be motivated to assault him or her.
If you have a combative subject, either through rage or recreational pharmaceuticals, they can be laid down in the back of the van with multiple officers to help, but in that situation you get into the realms of what is known as positional asphyxia. Basically of someone is restrained by say officers sitting on or pushing on the suspects chest or neck area, such as in a violent arrest scenario, the suspects physical need for oxygen in the exertion of the take-down exceeds the body’s ability to provide air because of the circumstances of the arrest, the suspect suffers from positional asphyxia. Once the suspect is restrained, the hold may be released, the suspect is still conscious and breathing, but because of the positional asphyxia, their condition will continue to deteriorate, despite the conditions which caused it having been removed. and the suspect with die off asphyxia a while after the arrest take-down.
Now I have no idea what happened in Baltimore with the prisoner who was transported by van, and passed away due to a broken neck. What I do know is that while the officer have a duty of care to their prisoner, the suspect has no such duty of care not to injure themselves or the officers, which puts the officers in a difficult position. Obviously if an invstigation shows the officers failed in their duty of care, then there may be a learing oppotunity for all departments that use Prisoner Transport Vans, but just as equally, the suspect may have injured themself due to thier own actions, or at a time they were not in police custody, we just don’t know at this point.
I once went to what appeared to be at first a simple accident, someone had pulled into a mini-roundabout without looking, and clipped a Mercedes which had ended up going off the road and down a small embankment. When we arrived, the driver was out of the Mercedes, and talking on a cell phone (that was back when cell phones were few and far between and not for the huddled masses, see Cellar Phones). When one of my colleagues approached him, he turned his head, dislocating the fracture which had occured when his Mercedes bottomed out falling ten feet from the road, and it was all over for him.
Sometimes bad things happen to good people, like the Mercedes driver, sometimes good officers with the best intentions get into situations where bad things happen to themselves or members of the public. Sometimes people die because of this, which means we should follow the invstigation, and hold the invstigating authority accountable for any deficiencies divulged, but not crucify the officers without knowing what happened first.