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With Freddie Gray, echoes of Dondi Johnson

There obviously is much more information that will come out about the death of Freddie Gray, especially now that the federal Department of Justice is involved. But keep in mind one name as the investigation unfolds, particularly with details about how Gray was transported by police.

Dondi Johnson, 43, was picked up on a public urination charge in November 2005. Officers placed him in a police van without fastening his seat belt, his family alleged. Johnson complained about needing to use a bathroom, so he was driven to the closest police station, according to the family’s lawyer. Upon arrival, however, the officers found him on the floor of the van “complaining about how the car was driven,” according to the family.

The officers pulled Johnson from the van, placed him in a patrol car and took him to Sinai Hospital, where tests showed he had a fractured and dislocated spine, resulting in quadriplegia, according to the family.

Johnson remained in the hospital until he died on Dec. 7, 2005.

The family made all of their allegations in a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against police. A jury awarded the family $7.4 million in April 2010.

Fast forward four-and-a-half years. I was working on a story updating the city Law Department’s “teachable moments” initiative, which aims to cut down on police misconduct lawsuits and how much they cost the city. When I asked for an example of the program’s success, the consensus answer was “Dondi Johnson.” From my story:

The case resulted in the city’s Law Department sending police a memo about the importance of properly securing suspects in vehicles. A police department audit of its paddy wagons determined the vehicles were properly equipped with seat belts but officers were not using them. Seat belt reminders subsequently became part of roll call training, and further spot audits and “boots on the ground” have resolved the problem, according to Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez, who oversees the department’s Bureau for Professional Standards and Accountability.

“Any successful city police department has to have good communication with [its law department] to identify teachable moments,” Rodriguez said.

Baltimore City Councilman Brandon M. Scott said Tuesday he plans to hold hearings on police transport vehicles, and police have said they are checking their vans to make sure they have proper restraints, according to The Baltimore Sun.