Morgenthau & NYPD Are “Dismissive” of Ped Fatality Questions

hope_miller.jpgIf you want to know how many cars were stolen in your neighborhood on any given week, the NYPD is happy to tell you. You don’t even need to make a phone call, as "CompStat" data — which also includes figures on murders, rapes, robberies, and burglaries — is posted online and updated regularly, precinct by precinct.

If, however, you want to know how many people were hit by cars or where the most dangerous intersections are in your neighborhood, CompStat won’t help you. Those numbers aren’t there. And if you’re looking for details of an incident in which someone was hurt or killed by a driver, your quest is likely to be frustratingly difficult, if not impossible. Even if you’re a member of a New York City Community Board.

Ian Dutton knows this story well. After Hope Miller, 28, an aspiring actress from Queens, was killed on Houston Street on September 25, Dutton — who serves on CB 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee and lives a block from where Miller died — began making calls. According to media reports, the driver of the truck that killed Miller, 48-year-old Roger Smiley of Brooklyn, was charged with leaving the scene, operating a vehicle while impaired by drugs, and resisting arrest. He was not, however, charged with killing Miller. Dutton wanted to know why.

morgenthau_1.jpgHe started with Rita Lee, a senior advisor in Council Member Alan Gerson’s office, who gave him a few phone numbers. Some of them didn’t work anymore. When he got through to the office of New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau (left), Dutton says most the people he talked to were "outwardly dismissive." Claiming no record of an incident involving a Roger Smiley or Hope Miller, DA office personnel instructed Dutton to get an arrest number from the police.

Since the site of the crash is near the boundary separating the two, Dutton was then bounced between NYPD Precincts 1 and 6. It took ten phone calls to find someone willing to offer any help — an officer at the 6th Precinct who told Dutton that, when a driver kills a pedestrian, a charge of homicide is brought if drugs or alcohol are involved. If the driver is sober, the offense merits a traffic ticket.

"That sounded ridiculous," Dutton says, "but it sounded like it was the modus operandi."

Dutton was finally able to get Smiley’s arrest number, but when he called the DA’s office back he was told the number didn’t exist. He was also asked repeatedly who he was and why he was calling.

Dutton then returned to Lee and asked if she could get any information on the case. Lee learned that two charges, DWI and negligent homicide, may be issued against Smiley. But Lee said those charges were pending and could take years to be filed. This was over a month ago.

At this point, says Dutton, "I couldn’t tell you what’s going on."

Though his efforts got him little more than what proved to be a useless arrest number, Dutton doesn’t think he was stonewalled due to the nature of the case. Rather, he believes Manhattan DA staffers simply didn’t want to risk catching flak for talking to an outsider. And he doesn’t think questioning city authorities about pedestrian injuries and deaths is a waste of time, regardless of the result.

"It’s important that both the police and prosecutors know that people care about this," Dutton says. "It’s tearing up communities."

Photos: Morgenthau from Viewimages.com, Hope Miller memorial from Galvoguy on Flickr.

  • Mark Fleischmann

    In addition to the DA and NYPD, drivers and pedestrians should also be made aware of death sites. Your first illustration, the Hope Miller memorial, holds the key. There should be prominent, permanent signage at the site of any killing by car. The number of dead should be in huge lettering and should be updated as needed. This will tell pedestrians to exercise caution (which may help save some, if not all lives). And it would warn drivers to slow down and behave more considerately. Deadly areas should not be allowed to remain mute. Silence equals death.

  • ddartley

    Another commenter (momos?) disagreed with me when I said “society condones” car-on-ped murder. But the subject of the first half of this story is what inspires me to say it. Police and D.A. policies are a reflection of our societal values. Thank goodness there’s now a growing serious movement (which Streetsblog has helped to cultivate) seeking to fix this ridiculous ill. Inspiring work, Ian.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’ve said it before. When people turn the key, the radio should turn on and play one of a series of rotating public service messages (depending on the time, day) reminding them of the danger to themselves and others. That would make people less in a rush to get where they are going and more wary of what could happen.

    The best people to read those messages would be drivers whose lives have been scarred by the deaths of others, or the disabilities of themselves, in collisions they were involved in.

  • flp

    its been said before, but its worth repeating here: the horrible fact in america is that, if you wanna get away with murder, just have the vic run down (OK a little work will have to be done in order to have motive tossed/unidentifiable….).

  • John Hunka

    I was pleased to see this article in the paper today about a driver charged with reckless homicide in connection with the death of two cyclists in North Carolina…
    http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/us/AP-BRF-Charity-Bicyclists-Killed.html

  • You are one tenacious dude, Ian. Good for you.

  • LN

    I volunteer with streets memorials, the collective of individuals that is helping to put up these pedestrian plaques and is installing ghost bikes in NYC. We depend upon news reports to learn about cyclists and pedestrian fatalities. Once or twice we got information from individuals. But we know we only have half the story. For example, it was recently reported in METRO that there were 20 cyclists deaths in NYC this year, that information from the NYPD. We so far, only know of 8 for 2007 from news reports–so editors have decided that the deaths of 12 cyclists in NYC in 2007 are not news–we know that reporters do go to more of these accidents then get into press, on tv or radio.

    There’s a bill in the City Council to have quicker reporting on accidents and fatalities to Community Boards. TA files, with great difficulty, a freedom if information act from the NY State DOT NYC data on ped injuries/fatalities and this year they are attempting the same for cyclists injuries/fatailities. They have to be forced to know that it must be a priority, we deserve to know.

  • Jonathan

    Thanks, Brad, for posting this informative article. I’m comparing the absolute silence on this issue with the plethora of warnings about lead that are provided to you when you move into a building (which for adults who don’t lick the walls or doorjambs are kind of superfluous), or with the city’s convenient neighborhood listing of restaurant health violations. Just why can’t we find those “crosswalks of casualty” online?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I had a similar difficulty when I saw a cyclist hit by a car back in 1999. I was concerned about the cyclist, so the next day I called the closest hospital and asked about his status. The hospital staff was helpful right up until they consulted his file, at which point they asked if I was a family member and refused to say anything else.

    A few days later I found out that the poor guy had died. I think hospitals have rules against releasing the fact that someone’s died, and I can kind of understand that. Of course they couldn’t tell me that at the time without revealing the fact that he was dead. It was frustrating for me, though, because I suspected as much but couldn’t confirm it.

    As far as the D.A.’s office is concerned, I can understand that they’re worried about the public meddling in their work. Still, tough shit. They’re public servants; they should be able to put up with a little public interference.

  • galvo

    i find the word “pedestrian” offensive and demeaning, it implies a inferior quality.
    i have many goggle alerts set up tracking deaths nationwide, the pedestrian term pops up too often as something lackluster or inferior. The mayor said the bicyclist are the little guy , they need to watch out, that is the wrong mindset. Bigger vehicles does not make right. The police department dose not take peds injuries and deaths seriously since they cannot relate to it. Their family members all drive and adore the auto. Walkers are people without means. The image of being successful in this metro area from the ghetto to the wealthy areas is the expensive big automobile.
    Bike cops would be a great way to apprehend aggressive drivers before they kill and maim.
    the bike cops would need patrol cars assistance for the traffic stops, but they would be a low profile way to observe and stop the too frequent driving nutcases.

  • Galvo , I am with you. first we nned a new word, like walker. we have biker and it sounds helathy and sporty .. we have byciclists and ti sounds scientific , pediclist ? anyway the connotation of pedestrian with being a nobody is real and very deep in our culture.
    There are 95 % of us against 5 % of them – the cars.. But 99% of the nations wealth is held by .5% of the population so do not expect that to change soon .
    Stretsblog , what about a photo contest of celebs pedestrians? or t-shirt with pictures of celebs she/he walks , me too???

  • Jonathan

    Christine: Excellent idea. Strider?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Galvo , I am with you. first we nned a new word, like walker.

    Yes, because that worked so well in raising the status of negroes, cripples and transvestites. If we just change the word people use to insult us, then they won’t be able to insult us anymore!

    Please don’t waste your time and energy on a euphemism cycle. We need it for more important things. I much prefer the “reclaiming” approach used by queer people. Pedestrian pride!

    I’d feel differently if there were no context in which “pedestrian” wasn’t an insult, but that’s not the case. There are plenty of contexts where “pedestrian” is a perfectly neutral descriptive term. If you don’t like hearing people talk about “pedestrian concerns” that have nothing to do with walkability, then protest that.

  • Davis

    come on people. go back to oberlin or earlham or hampshire or wherever you got your bachelor’s degree if you want to debate the use of the word “pedestrian.” totally irrelevant.

    the real question here is how in the world do manhattan voters continue to elect this fossil to the city’s top crime-fighting job. he was fantastic during the kennedy administration. give him a gold watch and let’s get someone in there who can, at the very least, maintain a functional web site.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I disagree, Davis (and I’m ignoring your snide remarks). Look at the anti-congestion pricing PR people’s use of the word “tax.” It guarantees to bring out a minimum number of knee-jerk libertarians, and has succeded more than that. Words are important, and that’s why we need to focus our attention on the words that matter.

    The lack of competitive D.A. elections is definitely cause for concern. What strategy do you think would address it?

  • Andy B from Jersey

    I kinda’ agree alittle with Davis’ snide remarks because I never thought of pedestrian as a derogatory term when it mean a person afoot however the door has been opened.

    I vote for “citizen” since we are all one of those in one form or another even if we are not all American. It’s a subtle reminder to the masses who may not always relate.

    “A citizen was killed by a speeding car on… Bob Smith was walking across/down/etc…”

  • Chris H

    I think that there is legitimacy to the argument because of the connotations that come from the word “pedestrian”‘s different defintions:

    –noun
    1. a person who goes or travels on foot; walker.
    –adjective
    2. going or performed on foot; walking.
    3. of or pertaining to walking.
    4. lacking in vitality, imagination, distinction, etc.; commonplace; prosaic or dull: a pedestrian commencement speech.

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/pedestrian

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Chris, notice that in the definition you quoted, the “lacking in vitality” part is only used in the adjective sense. If you say “I’m a pedestrian,” it just doesn’t have that connotation.

    Also, it’s significant that the Random House lexicographers put the “lacking in vitality” definition last. The order matters, and it means that the lexicographers consider that sense to be the least used.

    Finally, this connotation is a symptom, not a cause. Using a different word will not cause people to respect pedestrians, any more than taking Prozac will bring back a dead spouse.

    I’m not saying this to be snide, but by next spring I will have a PhD in linguistics, so I’m not just talking out my ass. Now, what are your suggestions for the 2009 Manhattan D.A. elections?

  • mkultra

    Angus, you are a serious renaissance man.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Well, thanks, Mkultra! Now I just need to find a Medici to subsidize my scholarship.

  • You have noted very interesting details ! ps nice web site .I like this web site so much, saved to favorites .

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