Inmate’s injury highlights lack of seat belts in sheriff’s wagons

Cameron Vincent was thrown five feet across the back of a sheriff’s wagon last October when a black truck crashed into the vehicle. He had a belly chain around his waist, handcuffs attached to his wrists and shackles on his ankles. But unlike the two deputies sitting in the front, he wasn’t wearing a seat belt. His forehead slammed into the metal wall of the holding cell.

In January, Vincent filed a lawsuit against San Francisco alleging that he suffered severe injuries to his head, back and ankles because the deputies failed to secure him with a seat belt. He said his injuries were so significant that an ambulance had to take him to a hospital for treatment.

“I asked the deputies to be restrained in a seat belt and their response was not to worry about it and he doesn’t care about me being in a seat belt or not,” Vincent, 33, said in a claim he filed against The City last December.

While his injuries may be an anomaly, the case draws attention to the lack of seat belts in some of the vehicles within the Sheriff’s Department’s aging fleet. Vincent was in one of five wagons that are missing seat belts in the back for inmates, according to a spokesperson for the department.

For Stanley Goff, an attorney for Vincent, the deficiency amounts to a “systematic failure” on the part of the Sheriff’s Department. Locked in restraints without a seat belt, Vincent had no means to break his fall.

“They knew they were going to transport an inmate who was going to be shackled,” Goff said. “Why wouldn’t they put him in a vehicle with seat belts? To me that even strengthens our claim that they were deliberately indifferent.”

Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, who has not decided whether to run for reelection in the fall, believes there should be seat belts in transport vehicles, according to her spokesperson. That’s why all of the vehicles she has requested funding for in the last three fiscal years have included them.

“We’re evaluating our fleet of the five remaining wagons to see if it makes sense to put seat belts in them, but it all depends on how much service they have left,” said Nancy Crowley, a spokesperson for the sheriff.

The department has dozens of passenger vans and six wagons used for transporting inmates to and from court, jail or the hospital in San Francisco and on the Peninsula. The ages of the vehicles vary, with service dates ranging from 2002 to as recent as 2016, with one outlier from 1994.

Last fiscal year, the mayor appropriated $407,086 for the Sheriff’s Department to purchase nine vehicles. There are also currently six wagons in the pipeline from the 2016-17 to 2017-18 fiscal years, including three that have arrived and are currently being outfitted for service.

The sheriff has requested some $1.5 million this fiscal year for vehicles this year, including $700,000 for a bus.

The lack of seat belts is just one issue for Goff, who also claims the deputy behind the wheel was driving recklessly when the accident happened.

Goff drew comparisons between Vincent and Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man who died after allegedly being given a “rough ride” in the back of a Baltimore police van in 2015. Like Gray, Vincent was not secured in a seat belt.

“This case is very similar to Freddie Gray,” Goff said. “Unfortunately he died, and my client didn’t die. But the circumstance are very similar.”

Goff alleges that the wagon was rear-ended because it “stopped abruptly.” The deputies were transporting Vincent from jail to family court.

“The Defendants drove the transport vehicle at unsafe speeds and in a reckless manner, in which they made very sharp turns at high rates of speed and slammed on the brakes in an abrupt and reckless manner several times,” Goff said in the lawsuit.

But in incident reports that the San Francisco Examiner obtained through a public records request, deputies Kyle Tauscher and Jonathan Reyes outlined a different version of the accident on Oct. 30, 2018.

Tauscher and Reyes each said they were stopped on Seventh Street before Folsom Street waiting for the light to turn green when the truck hit them. They did not say they stopped abruptly.

“I heard the rear of the van rattle and felt the van sway side to side,” Tauscher said.

“I heard a loud bang coming from the middle holding cell and I also felt the van move side to side,” Reyes said.

Tauscher said he at first thought Vincent was moving around in the holding cell, but Vincent said “It wasn’t me.”

Both Tauscher and Reyes then saw the black truck behind the wagon.

The deputies called for an ambulance. At the scene, medics placed Vincent on a gurney and transported him to the hospital. Tauscher said he “noticed a red bump on the left side of his forehead.”

Vincent arrived at the hospital at around 2:10 p.m. and was medically cleared by 2:55 p.m., according to Reyes. He was then taken back to the inmate intake center at County Jail No. 1 near the Hall of Justice.

The passengers of the truck were not injured.

Vincent has been an inmate at County Jail since November 2015. He is being held on charges including second-degree robbery and resisting arrest.

The federal lawsuit is pending. Vincent is seeking unspecified damages.

“We are reviewing the lawsuit and will respond in court,” said John Cote, a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office.

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