NYPD Precinct Chiefs Complacent in the Face of Deadly Driving

Last night’s get-together on traffic safety put on by Brooklyn CB 2 had some pleasantly unexpected highs and predictably low lows. Bill Harris, a longtime CB rep, told the crowd that he loves the city’s new bike and pedestrian infrastructure, which he said is "humanizing the city." Shortly thereafter, CB member Nancy Wolf called for licensing all cyclists.

tasso_dipaolo.jpgDeputy Inspector Anthony Tasso and Captain Mark DiPaolo.

But the main event was really the chance to talk traffic safety with Deputy Inspector Anthony Tasso of the 88th Precinct and Captain Mark DiPaolo of the 84th Precinct. The audience of CB members and about 20 or guests got to hear directly from these two commanding officers how they go about protecting the public on some of the most dangerous streets in the city, where streams of motorists feed into the free Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.

As Tasso and DiPaolo courteously fielded questions for the better part of two hours, they conveyed the sense that traffic enforcement, to them, is as much about placating irritated residents as providing measurably safer conditions for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists.

"We issue summonses based on two reasons," said Tasso. "Number one, community complaints — as we get this feedback, we direct specific resources to address these complaints." (So that’s why you should really make a habit of speaking up at your local precinct community council.)

The other reason Tasso gave is more in line with the NYPD’s reputation for statistical rigor. Describing NYPD’s TrafficStat program, Tasso explained that, at weekly meetings held at 1 Police Plaza, commanding officers are held to account for traffic injuries in their precinct, charged with analyzing why those injuries occurred, and taking steps to improve safety in the future.

crash_stat.jpgThe 84th and 88th are home to some of the city’s deadliest streets. Image of pedestrian and bicyclist injury and fatality sites: CrashStat.org

Some of the solutions they proposed at last night’s meeting, however, only make sense from behind a windshield. When asked why traffic agents at the intersection of Tillary and Adams routinely wave drivers exiting the Brooklyn Bridge through red lights and into the path of pedestrians, DiPaolo suggested that extending the left-turn phase would solve the problem. (Which sounds like the traffic enforcement equivalent of the City Council’s five minute "grace period" for parking violators.)

At another point, Tasso explained, "We try to enforce seatbelt violations, because that’s what kills people."

Neither Tasso nor DiPaolo even hinted at the notion that the speed and force wielded by motorists demand extreme care on crowded city streets. On more than one occasion, DiPaolo equated the risk cyclists pose to
pedestrians with the risk cars pose to cyclists. He never mentioned the
fact that motor vehicle traffic kills more than 175 pedestrians and cyclists each year in New York
City, or that more comprehensive enforcement could save lives.

Tasso said the police do analyze why pedestrian and bike crashes happen but that "oftentimes, it’s not enforcement, it’s engineering" to blame. In the end, that was probably the most frustrating aspect of last night’s talk. Yes, most city streets still have a long way to go before they’re engineered safely for walking and biking, but that’s in the process of changing. What is the NYPD doing to keep up?

You never got the sense last night, like you do when Ray Kelly talks about violent crime, that the officers just aren’t satisfied with the state of street safety in their precincts. Instead, when asked what they can do to prevent dangerous driving, they cited their limited resources and need to deploy officers to a wide variety of tasks.

Fair enough — NYPD manpower has really taken a hit in recent years. But when I asked what they would need to really get dangerous and rampant violations under control, DiPaolo gave the NYPD’s standard non-answer. "I don’t want you to think we ignore traffic, because we don’t," he said. "We wrote over 10,000 summonses for hazardous violations last year." The number "10,000" might sound big, but compared to the total volume of speeding violations, it’s a drop in the bucket. And it says nothing about whether streets are safer because of those tickets.

The question was a pretty fat pitch. DiPaolo could easily have knocked it out of the park by admitting that speeding and red light running put people in danger, and that tools like automated enforcement cams can help police protect people more effectively. He didn’t make contact.

  • I’ve talked to a number of people about this issue and it seems to come down to a simple issue. Most traffic incidents in the minds of law enforcers are the result of negligence, simple mistakes, “combination of factors” and very rarely is there any “criminal intent”. Basically drivers get into bad habits because they never get corrected and then one day, boom, they have a traffic accident.

    Enforcement of just three simple things: 1. Speeding, 2. Failure to yield and 3. Running red lights, would start to change these habits. Distracted driving is getting a lot of attention these days too, which is good, but police should start with the three basics first and get those right.

    One thing that I have started to do is calling in city, corporate-identified or non-profit vehicles with identification that I observe driving badly. The word to use is “reckless”, because that gets attention.

  • Bloomberg said in his inaugural address that he planned to have departmental deputy commissioners serve for a few weeks in another department.

    How about DOT’s Bruce Schaller in the NYPD?

  • Eric, I wish that were true. DOT is swapping with DDC and NYPD is swapping with FDNY (or OEM… I forgot). The swap idea is nice but when you’re already working with the other departments on such a regular basis, it kind of defeats the purpose.

    I missed most of the discussion but was there long enough to hear one of the officers called T.A. ‘Traffic Alternatives.’ It’s a simple flub, but really telling. NYPD chooses to not work with groups like TA, yet with murders at an all time city low… it’s more likely you’ll be hit by a car than a burglar.

  • How about DOT’s Bruce Schaller in the NYPD?

    Or James Tuller in the DOT?

  • fdr

    Bloomberg is switching First Deputy Commissioners, not just any Deputies. That’s not Schaller or Tuller.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Fair enough — NYPD manpower has really taken a hit in recent years.”

    But from a high level. In March 2008 NYC had 555 police officers per 100,000 residents, while the national average was 211. The number of NYC police officers could be cut in half and we’d still be slightly above average.

    At one time, the city crime rate was double the U.S. average, and one could argue that explained the higher number of officers. Now I think NYC may below the U.S. average, an achievement for which the NYPD deserves credit. But if the war is over, do we still need the same sized army, or are New Yorkers inherently more criminal, and only kept in check by an army in blue? Or is this just the difference between one and two officers per patrol?

  • Ian Turner

    I strongly suspect that New York needs an above-average number of officers because we have below-average officer productivity. The real crime is not the number of officers, but rather the small amount they can accomplish per shift.

  • Larry, perhaps the reduced crime rates in New York come from the fact that NYPD is better-staffed?

  • Canonchet

    Thanks for this accurate and useful account of what was not a terribly useful meeting, despite the welcome participation of the captain and deputy inspector. An informal, unpublicized and poorly attended Community Board forum is not going to lead to needed NYPD policy changes regarding automobile collisions with pedestrian and cyclists. Neither the officers nor CB2 have the power to changes such policies even if they so desired.

    Under current NYPD procedures — according to officers at both precincts — a motorist would not be cited with a moving violation for hitting a pedestrian in a crosswalk or a bicyclist in a bike lane unless 1) a police officer on the scene observes the car simultaneously or immediately beforehand also committing a recognized moving violation such as driving through a red light and/or 2) the pedestrian or bicyclist is killed, which should at least trigger a routine driving-record check and may result (in some cases) in the issuance of a traffic ticket. Absent another police-witnessed driving infraction and/or a fatality, the incident would never even be noted on the driver’s record, even if the pedestrian or cyclist hit and injured were clearly not at fault and potentially crippled for life and an officer arrived at the scene in time to corroborate these facts. That’s department policy. The police officer’s responsibility at the accident scene is confined to collecting the driver ID and insurance information needed to process a no-fault insurance claim. Or so I’m told.

    This policy could perhaps changed as a result of a lawsuit or a concerted TA campaign on behalf of the many pedestrians and cyclists who (like this writer) have been hit by cars in such circumstances but survived.

  • I’m shocked, SHOCKED, that another well-meaning meeting, with the well-meaning precinct leads to the same thing – nothing.

    Isn’t one definition of insanity, to repeatedly do the same thing and expect different results?

    In my blog, I’ve interviewed an officer from the 84th, and it is their -policy- not to enforce certain traffic laws.

    http://inklake.typepad.com/ink_lake/2010/01/theytakecareofus.html.html

  • Chris

    Maybe they should replace Captain DiPaolo, he comments sounds like an idoit if he cant reason that speeding and red lights cause major bicycle deaths.. Sounds like Captain Dipaolo should command Toysrus instead or disney land.

  • gool

    I agree the Co in 84 precinct sounds like a fool.

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