Police van

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A police van (also known as a paddy wagon (regarded as derogatory by people of Irish heritage), patrol wagon, Black Maria or police carrier) is a type of vehicle operated by police forces. Police vans are usually employed for the transportation of prisoners inside a specially adapted cell in the vehicle, or for the rapid transportation of a number of officers to an incident.


American police van, Duluth, Minnesota, 1909.

Early police vans were in the form of horse-drawn carriages, with the carriage being in the form of a secure prison cell. In the modern age, motorised police vans replaced the older Black Maria and paddy wagon types as they were usually crudely adapted for accommodation of prisoners.

The need for a secure police van was realised when prisoners who were resisting arrest needed to be transported. The concern, was that if transported in a conventional patrol car, the prisoner may attack the officers during the journey.

To combat this, police vans were designed with a fixed steel cage in the rear of the vehicle effectively separating the prisoner from the officers.


Paddy Wagon[edit]

Modern Western Australian Police Force police paddy wagon.
NSW Police Ford Ranger police paddy wagon with new-style cage.
VW Transporter Finnish police van, aka "Mustamaija".

The precise origin of the term is uncertain and disputed, though its use dates back to the 1800s.[1] "Paddy" however is a slang term for an Irish person used in the English speaking world, but it is now in decline as it is considered an improper term. (Irish themselves may still use it in an affectionate way but caution should be exercised.)

There are at least three theories as how the phrase originated.

  • The most prevalent theory in the United States is based on the term "Paddy" a common Irish shortening of Padraig, (Patrick in English), which was most often used as an ethnic slur to refer to Irish people.[2] Irishmen made up a large percentage of the officers of early police forces in many American cities. Thus, this theory suggests that the concentration of Irish in the police forces led to the term "paddy wagon" being used to describe the vehicles driven by police.
  • An alternative theory is similarly based on the term "Paddy" but states that the term arose due to the allegedly high crime level among Irish immigrants.[3]
  • The most common understanding of the term "Paddy Wagon" in the United Kingdom also stems from the belief that the most common occupants of the vans were Irish. This comes from several perspectives: a) prejudice by English people that the Irish immigrants were largely common criminals, b) from the legendary stories of their fighting spirit and the fact that when arrested they were less likely to "go quietly" than other nationalities, requiring the use of the van rather than a police car, and c) that the Irish liked to drink so much that drunken brawling would often ensue and this the police van would be called to take them away into custody.
  • Yet another theory holds that "paddy wagon" was originally "patty wagon," a nickname for "patrol wagon." In the same manner that police cars are called patrol cars today, there were no cars when the term "patrol wagon" was first used, explaining why people don't say "paddy car" for patrol car.[4]

Most of the police vans in the UK have caged sections to keep the occupants apart from each other.

Black Maria[edit]

These vehicles were usually painted black or a very dark blue. In the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States, a police wagon was also sometimes called a Black Maria (/məˈr.ə/ mə-REYE). The origin of this term is equally uncertain. The name Black Maria is common for race horses beginning with an 1832 appearance in Niles Weekly Register (Oct. 10) and then again in Colburn's New Monthly Magazine and Humorist (1841).[5] The OED lists the first usage as the Boston Evening Traveller from 1847 which mentions them as a new type of wagon. An example from Philadelphia was published in 1852.[6] Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable suggests the name came from Maria Lee, a large and fearsome black keeper of a sailors' boarding house who the police would call on for help with difficult prisoners. The French detective novel Monsieur Lecoq, published in 1868 by Émile Gaboriau, uses the term Black Maria when referring to a police van. The term is still used today in parts of Britain for the vehicle that transports prisoners from gaol to court, appearing in the songs "Guns of Brixton" by The Clash, "Singing for the Lonely" by Robbie Williams, "The Curse of Millhaven" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and "Adios Hermanos" by Paul Simon. Frequently, blackened-windowed buses are also used for the same purpose.[7]

The term also exists in Norwegian, where the same vehicle is called "maja" or "svartemaja" (alt. "-marje", "-marja"), originating from "Black Maria", in Icelandic as "Svarta María" and in Finnish as "mustamaija". In Serbian and Croatian, it is "marica" (with a small "m"), while "Marica" with a capital "M" is a diminutive of several female names.

The Black Maria is also called 'Mother's Heart' as it is said that there is always room for one more.

In Australia, specifically New South Wales and Queensland, the term used to refer to a general duties vehicle with a prisoner cage on the back is generally Paddy Wagon or Bull Wagon. Australian police vans are typically based on small utility vehicles such as the Holden Rodeo, Holden Crewman, or Toyota Hilux. In Victoria, Australia, the term Divisional Van (or Divvy Van for short) is used. In Western Australia, paddy wagon is common amongst the general population but divvy van appears to be favoured by the police themselves.[citation needed]

Use of vans[edit]

British police van with City of London logo and Battenburg markings.
A bigger Police Van, it may have additional equipment or can carry extra personnel.

Individual police stations may have a van for the accommodation of prisoners and transportation of officers.[8] The Metropolitan Police Service, England makes extensive use of these, particularly among the Territorial Support Group, which carries out public order duties and adapts the vans to carry riot protection equipment.

Police vans may have a flip down wire shield across the windscreen,[8] which helps prevent projectiles from damaging the vehicle.

Many forces now differentiate between a "Carrier" - a vehicle used for Public Order situations and therefore equipped with shields etc. and what is commonly known as a "Cub Van" - a small van with a cage in the back.

Some police departments, such as the Baltimore Police Department, have been accused of braking abruptly or steering sharply in order to inflict injuries on unbuckled prisoners, a technique called a "rough ride". Most notably, Freddie Gray allegedly died as a result of such a ride in 2015. Other prisoners have received large settlements after becoming paralyzed during transportation in police vans.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary (2002); ISBN 978-0-19-521942-5
  2. ^ Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1993); ISBN 0-87779-201-1 , and The Cassell Dictionary of Slang (1998) ISBN 0-304-34435-4
  3. ^ Sowell, Thomas. The Economics And Politics of Race, p. 69
  4. ^ Partridge's Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1989); ISBN 0-02-605350-0
  5. ^ See also discussion here http://www.word-detective.com/2008/11/black-mariapaddy-wagon/
  6. ^ 'The Black Maria'. Gleason's Pictorial (Boston), 3.24, 11 Dec 1852, p. 384. archive.org.
  7. ^ Quinion, Michael. Black Maria, World Wide Words
  8. ^ a b [1][dead link]
  9. ^ http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-gray-rough-rides-20150423-story.html#page=1

External links[edit]

Media related to Police vans at Wikimedia Commons