Car Chases: Not Like What You See in the Movies

crash.jpgThe aftermath of yesterday’s deadly car chase on Manhattan Avenue. Photo: Graham T. Beck

Manhattan Avenue, the bustling main street in my usually quiet Brooklyn neighborhood, became a multi-block crime scene yesterday afternoon when a mini-van driver, reportedly fleeing police at high speed, struck and killed a woman near India Street before crashing into a parked SUV five blocks further north.

The pedestrian who was struck, Violetta Kryzak, a 38-year old Polish immigrant and mother,
was taken to Bellevue Hospital and pronounced dead
following the crash. The driver of the van, Jose Maldonado, 28, is
awaiting charges after being taken to Woodhull Hospital with a broken
toe.

I was out walking my dog when I came upon the scene. Several people I spoke to near the multi-vehicle pileup told me that two unmarked, gray
police cars without their sirens on were pursuing the mini-van down
Manhattan Avenue at extremely high speed.

"There were two cops chasing a white van up the avenue," said Kamil Uminski, 20, who witnessed the van strike the
pedestrian. "[The van driver] was flying — like 100 miles an hour — ran a red light at India Street, hit the lady, kept going, and I guess this is where he lost it."

NYPD has been unwilling to explain what prompted the high-speed chase, or even acknowledge that officers were pursuing the vehicle that struck the woman.

I’ve probably seen a thousand police chases on TV and in the movies, but this was the first time I’d come across the aftermath of the genuine article. It was easy to see why, in real life, the tactic has been discredited in all but the most extreme circumstances.

According to Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, research indicates that most suspects chased by police are not serious criminals, but "deadbeats making stupid decisions to avoid being caught for not having a license or some offense that would be very minor compared to what happens when they initiate a pursuit."

Even when the suspect is being pursued for a serious crime, the outcome of these tactics is often deadly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2001, 365 people died in police pursuits, including 140 who weren’t in a police car or a vehicle being chased.

Yesterday’s tragedy on Manhattan Avenue made these statistics all too real, and left many of the people I spoke to questioning the judgment of the police. As Miss Heather, the author of the Greenpoint neighborhood blog newyorkshitty, wrote to me in an email, "I cannot believe the police decided to pursue this guy down Manhattan Avenue which is without argument TEEMING with pedestrians. Very. BAD. Decision."

According to Leonard Levitt, who wrote the column "One Police Plaza" for Newsday and now pens NYPD Confidential, the police department has "taken the lead in swearing off high-speed pursuits as dangerous to both civilians and officers.” As to whether or not there are exceptions to this ‘swearing off’, Streetsblog has a request in with NYPD’s public information office.

Given the tragic outcome of yesterday’s pursuit, it seems a sensible time to ask: Is a police chase in the city ever appropriate? The television shows and movies that make screeching tires the stuff of everyday law enforcement send an unambiguous message: the faster the cops give chase, the greater their dedication to justice. But walking down Manhattan Avenue this morning, past piles of shattered glass, stains that I couldn’t help seeing as blood splotches, and the faces of people who might have been in mourning, police pursuit seemed a whole lot more complicated than getting a bad guy and burning some rubber.

  • I have heard that NYPD officers will avoid calling in a high-speed pursuit as it develops so that they can’t be told to stop chasing a suspect. Who knows how much of that is just rumor or bravado, but there is at least pose of an attitude among cops that the main question with a car chase is not whether it can be carried out without putting civilians in unnecessary danger, but whether you can get away with it.

  • Last week I was riding east in the Grand Street Bike Lane when some unmarked police car seemed to appear out of nowhere. He had one of those portable red lights that cops put on the hood in these situations and a very very loud siren. Grand Street, as usual, was backed up with traffic so he decided to use the protected bike lane as his route west.

    There isn’t a whole lot of room in those protected lanes so when I saw this car headed straight towards me my first thought was to get up onto the sidewalk, but just as I was about to jump the curve I saw the car swerve to my right as if he had the same idea!!! Can you just imagine a police car on those narrow Grand Street sidewalks?

    Obviously I was much more fortunate than Violetta Kryzak in that I survived the encounter but it does make me think that police engage in hot pursuit with little regard for the public they claim to protect.

  • If there were traffic surveillance cameras on every block, it wouldn’t be necessary for police to chase criminal drivers. They could simply identify them and catch up with them later, without bloodshed. As an added benefit, the cameras could be used to monitor other behavior, like running red lights and blocking pedestrian crossings, automatically generating the appropriate legal penalties with photographic evidence. And they would allow congestion pricing to be implemented flexibly and on a wide scale.

  • I’ll go along with “cameras on every block” only if the public is allowed to use them, too.

  • Shemp

    Stacy, maybe it was Shelly.

  • even more tragic is that this guy will probably get grand theft and involuntary manslaughter and be back on the street in eight years.

  • There is a huge difference between surveillance cameras that can be continuously monitored or recorded and traffic cameras that ONLY take pictures when they detect a vehicle being operated illegally. Strangely, plenty of the former have been installed with nary a peep, but the latter are being effectively obstructed.

  • Mark Walker, Good point. How many times have surveillance cameras proved invaluable in situations that went far beyond the purpose for which they were originally intended?

    Rhywun there are probably far more surveillance cameras out there than any of us might suspect, in banks, stores, and even residential apartment buildings. They may not be government owned cameras but they’re out there none the less.

  • Oh, I am well aware that the streets are riddled with private security cameras. There are actually websites that track them. There are parts of Manhattan with dozens of cameras per block. That’s their right, apparently.

    But the police have far more power over me than the average private business does. If they’re going to get a network of cameras (and it’s only a matter of time), I want those records to be publicly available.

  • Jackal

    Police work often puts innocent third parties in danger. Just one example: any time an armed criminal is being pursued there is a risk of hostage-taking. In fact I think most hostage situations exist solely because of the possibilty that the hostage taker may be apprehended. But as a society we have decided that it is much better to risk occasional harm to the innocent – and yes, even the occasional innocent life – than to refuse to enforce the law. If we prohibit police from giving chase by car, we give every criminal with a car a guaranteed escape. Consider watching a murderer escape in traffic just because we are too afraid that he might do even more harm if we chase him. What a spineless and defeatist view.

  • Jackal

    Mark Walker: Do you actually think that monitoring cameras will be effective? What an academic view – and I am using “academic” as a pejorative. There are so many flaws in your understanding of the physical world that I’m not sure where to begin criticising your plan. Do you actually think it is even possible to identify suspects in this manner (many of whom will be driving stolen vehicles)? Do you actually think these cameras provide usable face shots on a regular basis? (in case you are wondering, the TV show “24” is not reflective of our government’s actual surveillance capabilities). And what is your plan for apprehending criminals once you track them down (after all they will all go home, watch TV and wait to be apprehended)? Do we go knock on their doors and say please?

  • Anon

    Jackal,
    Hostage taking is premised on the fact that we, as a society, have decided that there are circumstances where it is better NOT to enforce laws than it is to risk harming the innocent. The same logic applies to not shooting at fleeing suspects on crowded streets and not arresting lots of people that match a description only to figure out which one committed the crime later. Also, the post did not suggest prohibiting police officers from giving chase by car. It did, however, suggest that there should be some consideration of the larger context of the chase, such as the safety of innocent bystanders.

  • Jackal, are you asking a lot of rhetorical questions? Are you aware that the traffic camera is a proven technology that works? Do you realize it is quite effective at capturing license plate information and transmitting it to a central processing system? Have you stopped to consider that my proposal is quite simple — to install more of them, and to get more use out of them? Why do you pretend this is something out of a sci-fi movie, despite all evidence to the contrary? Will your next red herring be the old Big Brother argument, which ignores the fact that the streets are a public place? Is it possible you are merely a scofflaw driver who doesn’t want to get caught?

  • Jackal

    Mark Walker: You clearly have no first hand experience with traffic cameras and seem to have a tenuous grasp of the physical world. They are a “proven technology” when it comes to catching people who are driving their own car. They are useless for catching someone who is driving a stolen car (as is the case in a great many crimes that lead to police chases). Your suggestion is just factually wrong, plain and simple. It’s the sort of thing someone might dream up while sipping a coffee in some cafe or writing an academic paper but would never pass the laugh test if presented to people who actually know what they are doing in this area.

    Anon: I agree with everything you have said. Clearly escalation must be appropriate and proportional. Exactly what that means in any given situation is the much more difficult question.

  • Jackal: “You clearly have no first hand experience with traffic cameras…. They are useless for someone catching someone who is driving a stolen car…. Your suggestion is just factually wrong….” Etc., etc., etc.

    Police track thieves with traffic cameras.

    Have a nice day.

  • Jackal

    Did you actually just troll the entire Internet for a single news story that supports your claim? I can find something through Google that supports pretty lots of unfounded garbage. The basic point very much stands: sitting on your computer and using Google does not make you even close to knowledgeable about this subject. I have the benefit of actually knowing what I am talking about (you know, experience and actual knowledge that I didn’t gain in the last two hours on the Internet) and repeat: your ineffectual armchair policymaking does not even pass the laugh test.

    Have a nice day.

  • I have the benefit of actually knowing what I am talking about

    I know more than you about it. My proof? I can call you a latte-sipping academic, and that’s all the proof I need.

  • Jackal

    OK, my posts have been mean. That’s what happens when one comments anonymously on a subject about which he feels strongly.

    I disagree with your proposal because I do not think it would be effective. Maybe I just should have said that.

  • k8

    hi-
    the chase was at extremely high speed with no sirens. i am close friends with 2 witnesses to the chase, who were on different parts of manhattan ave at the time and all separately reported teh incident to me because of its drama and before the article appeared in gothamist. the police chased the car thief from a comparatively quiet part of manhattan ave to a densely populated one. it would have been a miracle if no one was hurt. instead a 38 yr old woman with a child was killed. her family is devastated and a car thief has become a murderer. the cops played an impt part in this, and have gotten off without a hitch. no mainstream paper reported the chase. i have seen it reported here, gothamist and one other online news source. the majority of the bloggers have been people like jackal, above.

  • k8

    hi-
    i’ve read about the chase on greenpointnews.com, greenpointers.com, brownstoner.com, gothamist.com, streetsblog.org and http://asoiaf.westeros.org/index.php? i’ve been told it was mentioned in the post, but i didn’t see it there. basically the story, like so many, has already faded into the past. i’m haunted by it (yes, with full knowledge of all of the other terrible stuff going on in the world), maybe because it took place in my neighborhood. my friends, separately, witnessed it so i know for a fact that the police really did act in an inexplicably ludicrous manner by pursuing that minivan. i am not experienced in pursuing stuff like this so i don’t know the correct procedure for complaint, but i did find one supposed venue for it in case anyone is interested:
    http://www.nyc.gov/html/ccrb/home.html

  • Tabitha Phillips

    Hello everyone.

    Please accept my condolences to the family and friends of Violetta Krzyzak. Please do not take my comment below as rude.

    I with the law firm Schwartzapfel Truhowsky Marcus, P.C., we are working for Violetta Krzyzak’s family to help them receive the justice they deserve.

    If anyone witnessed this horrible accident and would like to offer any information, please feel free to contact me with your contact information at tphillips@fightingforyou.com. Thank you and God bless.

  • NYPD are generally the largest group of overpaid jarheads ever assembled. However, they are alone in that distinction only by virtue of their bloated ranks.Across the country you will notice others like them who although smaller in GIRTH, are allways inside, and never outside of their beloved ‘cruisers’. Word on the streets of Greenpoint puts blame firmly on them for this completely unnessary tragedy for which they have been shamefully silent and unapologetic. No wonder the city pays millions in out in civil lawsuits every year. They do not serve the community so the commmunity does and will continue to punish them for this. Their wild west approach to law enforcement and callousness is not without a cost. Were they to ever get out of their cars walk amongst us inside of spending so much time their cars, they might enjoy community support when mistakes were made.

  • This si so devestating. This is just proof that cameras on most blocks would be beneficial.

  • police high speed chases rarely end well. There has to a safer protocal set in place. Its about the saftey of the general public!

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

NYPD Denies High-Speed Chase in Death of Greenpoint Mom

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Deputy Inspector Dennis Fulton at last Monday’s 94th Precinct Community Council meeting. The New York City Police Department denies that it was involved in a high-speed police chase preceding the vehicle-on-pedestrian collision that took the life of Violetta Kryzak, a 38-year-old Polish-American mother and Greenpoint resident, despite eyewitness accounts to the contrary first published by […]