Midtown Police Refuse to Help Hit-and-Run Pedicab Victim

NYPD "Broken Windows" Strategy Does Not Apply to Traffic Crime

Last month a grand jury indicted officer Patrick Pogan for leveling cyclist Christopher Long during a Critical Mass ride and lying about it afterward. For all the satisfaction one may derive from seeing justice grind forward in that case, the Pogan assault is something of a rarity — police aggression caught on tape, making the cover-up utterly transparent and leaving a media storm in its wake. The more common — and pressing — problem for pedestrians and cyclists is the routine NYPD response to traffic violations that cause them injury and harm.

haymes_pedicab.jpgEthan Haymes is still waiting for a response to his report of a hit-and-run collision.

Not long before the Pogan indictment, pedicab driver Ethan Haymes got a taste of this everyday injustice. On the night of November 25th, cruising for fares on Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center, Haymes was swiped from behind by an SUV as the driver made a reckless attempt to pass him on the left. The impact gashed Haymes’ rear fender and bent one wheel into a potato chip, causing no physical harm. His cab rendered unrideable, Haymes watched as the driver accelerated and rounded the next corner.

The collision was unintentional, Haymes says, but the driver’s hit-and-run reaction was unmistakable. "He basically stepped on it and hightailed it out of there," says Haymes. Luckily, a family of tourists witnessed the collision and caught the driver’s license plate. Haymes recorded the number in his cell phone and prepared to notify the police. He figured multiple eyewitnesses and a unique identifier would give him firm footing to seek damages from the perpetrator — nothing too hefty, just enough to cover damages to the pedicab.

The first officer Haymes approached said he could not help because he had no radio, and advised Haymes to call 911. The emergency operator took the complaint, entered it into the system, and told Haymes to stay at the scene until police arrived. So Haymes waited. And waited. After about 90 minutes, the owner of the pedicab showed up and helped replace the busted wheel. Haymes waited for the cops some more. Two hours after placing the 911 call — well past midnight — he rode away from the scene and headed for the Midtown North precinct building.

At the precinct, Haymes recalls, police told him the collision could not be classified as a hit-and-run because he had left the scene. Frustrated, he filled out an accident report, a process that only heightened his sense that enforcement protocols were weighted against him. "It was all catered to drivers, as if the collision were two cars," he said of the form. "I just wrote in the margins what actually happened." He is still waiting for a response to the form from state police headquarters in Albany.
The whole experience has proven disillusioning. "I expected them to be like, ‘Oh, you got hit-and-run? Well, give us the license plate and we’ll prosecute this guy,’" Haymes said. "I feel like that’s the way it should have happened. That is their job."

Haymes’s story is hardly exceptional. Police follow-up is nearly unheard of when a hit-and-run vehicle strikes a bike, says Adam White, an attorney based in New York who has represented cyclists for more than 10 years. "I’ve never had a

situation where a cop has done what’s necessary to go after the owner
or operator of that vehicle… they just
don’t do it," he said. "Every now and then clients of mine have been livid and
tried to pursue it, and I’ve encouraged them to do so, and I’ve never
heard a client tell me that it’s come to anything."

NYPD’s treatment of traffic crime doesn’t square with its much-touted adherence to the "broken windows"
theory of policing. One of the tenets of broken windows is that
eliminating petty offenses pays dividends by reducing more serious
crimes down the line. Crack down on turnstile jumping, the thinking
goes, and a decline in subway violence will follow. The analogy to
cases like Ethan Haymes’s collision is clear: Zero tolerance for drivers
who act recklessly, regardless of the physical harm incurred, will
yield lower rates of crashes that do injure and kill people.

With increased bike modeshare an essential component of the city’s green agenda — and ridership numbers starting to take off — a tougher NYPD stance on traffic violations would also reinforce sustainability goals by helping to put cyclists on equal footing with drivers. The necessary training and protocols appear not to be in place, however.

"My general sense is, across the board, that the police take vehicle crashes more seriously because they are just more routine, they’re used to them, and they generally seem a little out of sorts by cyclist incidents and they just want to get done with them," said Mark Taylor, the attorney who helped Haymes file an insurance claim with the state following the collision. "The paperwork is set up for vehicles hitting each other and that’s what cops tend to be trained for — they just don’t know how to handle cyclists."

So what exactly is the NYPD’s current protocol for car-on-bike collisions in which a hit-and-run vehicle can be positively identified? Streetsblog’s queries have yet to yield a response from the agency. A phone call to Midtown North’s community affairs office was re-routed to the "Highway Safety" desk, which refused to answer any questions from reporters. NYPD’s central public relations office has not responded to multiple inquiries.

Law enforcement’s ingrained anti-cyclist bias is certainly not limited to New York. But there are some success stories elsewhere in the country, where consistent public pressure has improved police protocols for handling car-on-bike crashes. Last year, for instance, Portland’s police department lowered the threshold for generating a police report for crashes involving "vulnerable roadway users" — a new legal category encompassing cyclists, rollerbladers, and skaters.

"There was a time when if you were hit on a bike, and you were knocked off, they wouldn’t write up a report," said Bob Mionske, a Portland-based attorney and former Olympic cyclist who in 2007 published Cycling and the Law, a guide to cyclists’ legal rights. The new standard, he explains, triggers more police investigations of car-on-bike crashes and leads to better insurance records of drivers’ histories.

As a columnist with Velo News — and, soon, Bicycling Magazine — Mionske receives letters from cyclists and their families all over the country about their encounters with law enforcement. When you get down to it, he says, police treatment of crashes involving cyclists is really a matter of rights and equality. "We should have parity when it’s a cyclist involved, and the fact is, that’s not the case," he said. "Whatever the protocols are with respect to motor vehicle-on-motor vehicle are the same ones they should use for bike versus car."

  • After reading about these stories before, I decided that if I encounter this problem and call police or 911, I’m not mentioning anything about cycling. “I’ve been involved in a hit-and-run” or “My vehicle has been struck by another vehicle” are both still valid to say, I believe. Cyclists shouldn’t be treated differently when a victim of a collision, and I think stating that I am a cyclist would immediately turn the situation into the mindset of being “just” or “only” a bicycle.

    I bet that if this guy called and said, “I struck by a speeding SUV which caused major damage to my vehicle” the cops would have showed up a lot faster. Otherwise, it sounds like a kid riding around in a tricycle. No wonder the cops don’t care to investigate if the dispatcher makes it sound like that.

    I’m just amazed by how many of these stories come up lately. How much does it take to get the same respect the a car victim receives? Why is biking so much less meaningful to the law? I really hope this changes over the next few years.

    -Andy

  • I had a friend get hit by a car in PA. The driver initially took off but then returned. The driver of a car behind the crash witnessed everything, helped my friend who was lying in the gutter, stayed at the scene and was willing to testify to what had happened. My friend was okay but had some serious road rash and a few bruised ribs and his brand new bike required several hundred dollars worth of repairs.

    The PA state police who responded to the crash were very professional and courteous according to my friend and took the crash very seriously. Unfortunately, it turned out that the driver of the car that caused the accident was a higher up in the federal district attorneys office. Not surprisingly, when the police report came back it was much different from what actually happened.

  • Geck

    After reporting a similar incident a few years ago, I was told that the report is handed off to a detective, but unless someone was hurt in the hit-and-run, they generally don’t pursue it.

  • Ian Turner

    For what it’s worth, NYPD goal for response to non-injury accidents is 4 hours. That’s as true for car-on-car as for car-on-bicycle.

  • medici

    Been hit twice in NYC since i moved here in 2007. Both were hit and runs. The second time I was cut of by an oncoming minivan that turned left without a signal. I managed to turn and hit the van sideways recieving a small dent on the top tube of my steel frame. I also recieved a huge rash on my side. There were two witnesses (they thought I was dead) who managed to take down the plate # when the van stopped to consider the situation before flooring it. I called the cops. they came by and said that nothing could be done. I was completely deflated when I realized how few rights we really have as cyclists. I had witnesses, I had a plate #, I had an injury and a damaged bike but apparently all that amounted to nothing. Cars one, cyclists zero

  • Larry Littlefield

    “How much does it take to get the same respect the a car victim receives?”

    Is it a matter of respect? Or is it that a disabled motor vehicle blocks traffic, whereas a pedestrian or cyclist gets out of the way to avoid being hit again, and thus solves “the” problem?

  • Medici,

    Did you pursue any civil action in your case? If the criminal courts won’t do anything shouldn’t the civil courts be of help?

    In my friends case, he had hired a respected bicycle attorney but after the police report came back and they found out who the driver was, they figured it wasn’t going to go anywhere. And from the details my friend told me, my friend was partly to blame (I’d say about 30%, other driver 70%).

    Good luck out there!

  • Hobbes

    My contempt for police “response” predates cycling. I’ve experienced the infamous NYPD apathy through family members, friends, and myself who were victims of some serious crimes and the police did as little as possible to help us.

    Note to everyone: Never mention to the NYPD that you were part of an anti-war march or demonstration. They will “lose” your case file and ignore you as you try to call and retrieve the police report.

    Another note: If you’re an immigrant with an accent they will usually dismiss your account of the event even with overwhelming evidence supporting it. They will instead use the version of the english speaker, regardless of their apparent guilt.

    My only positive interaction with NYPD was when I got lost downtown as a kid and a a female officer gave me a token and directions on how to get home.

    Sorry, don’t mean to vent on this thread, but how is it that half a dozen close encounters with the NYPD have been almost all negative?

  • Robert Milkwood Thomas

    The police represent the interests of the ruling class, first and foremost. On the streets of New York City, cars constitute the ruling class. In the eyes of the NYPD, bicyclists don’t really belong on the streets, just as anti-war marchers don’t belong on the sidewalks. Until someone from the ruling class (like the mayor, maybe) tells them different, the NYPD is going to continue ignoring car-on-bike crimes.

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