According to the Inquirer (9/25/14), James McKenna had a confrontation with an off-duty policy officer at a bar. McKenna was arrested at the bar on simple assault charges and driven in a police van while handcuffed but otherwise not restrained. McKenna alleges the ride was abusive and caused him to move around the van violently enough to break his neck. As a result of that broken neck, McKenna says he grew faint in his prison cell, hitting his head against the bars.
The officers reportedly said that McKenna injured himself by hitting his head against the bars in his cell. When McKenna was taken to the hospital, however, officers told medical staff that McKenna's injury was the result of the ride to the hospital.
According to the Inquirer, Philadelphia has a history of “nickel rides,” rides in police vehicles that are purposely erratic, as a way of punishing criminals without the police actually touching the criminal. There have been reports of serious injuries - including paralysis - as a result of these rides. More than 10 years ago, the vehicles were pulled and outfitted with restraining belts, but those have since been replaced by grab belts that prisoners hold on to, meaning those incapable of holding on - due to illness, physical injury or intoxication - could be at risk of injury.
McKenna reportedly suffered three broken neck vertebrae and two ruptured discs requiring hospitalization and surgery, including nerve decompression, discectomy and spinal fusion. Although he is not paralyzed, McKenna says he still has limited mobility in his neck and suffers weakness and numbness in his arms. According to his lawsuit, he was not put in a seatbelt in the police van and was driven in such a way that he fell to the vehicle’s floor four times.
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At trial, McKenna was found not guilty of simple assault. Some lawsuits filed against the police linked to the so-called nickel rides have resulted in awards to plaintiffs, including one that resulted in $1.2 million to a man who was paralyzed from the incident, according to the Inquirer (12/9/13).