Bill to Release Street Safety Data Gains Steam Over NYPD Objections

Legislation that would compel the NYPD to open some of its traffic safety data to the public got a big boost today, when City Council public safety committee chair Peter Vallone Jr. announced his support at a hearing on the bill. The hearing was marked by a tense confrontation between council members and police officials who refused to concede that New Yorkers have a right to such information. 

Intro_120_Rally_Pic.JPGCity Council member Peter Vallone Jr. speaks at a rally on the steps of City Hall before today’s hearing, along with colleagues Jimmy Vacca and Jessica Lappin. Photo: Transportation Alternatives.

Sponsored by Council Member Jessica Lappin, Intro 120, the "Saving Lives Through Better Information Bill," would require the NYPD to post data on crashes and summonses as frequently as it releases CompStat data on violent crimes. It also stipulates that the NYPD convey where crashes occurred, who was involved, any contributing factors such as cell phone use or drunk driving, and what kinds of summonses were issued. That data, which the department already compiles, would equip New Yorkers with better information to push for safety improvements in their neighborhoods and hold the NYPD accountable for the effectiveness of its enforcement tactics.

Before the hearing, transportation committee chair Jimmy Vacca was already one of 16 co-sponsors of Intro 120. Today public safety chair Vallone, whose committee has jurisdiction over the bill, signed on. "I support this," said Vallone near the end of the hearing, "and I think the committee will too."

The police department, however, came out strongly against Intro 120, arguing that it would require too much personnel at a time when the department is already facing a manpower shortage. More importantly, police officials made it clear that they fundamentally do not believe that releasing traffic data would promote street safety. 

The police’s objections stemmed primarily from what was repeatedly characterized as a "philosophical difference" between the department and council members, on the question of whether traffic data is even useful to the public. "The information sought by the bill does not provide meaningful information which can illuminate the reasons for a vehicle accident or the mechanisms used to enhance traffic safety," said NYPD Chief of Transportation James Tuller. "This information is only valuable to those with the training, knowledge and experience to understand its context and interpret it correctly… That is the role of the police commander." 

Council members vehemently disagreed with the department’s assessment that only the police can interpret data on collisions and summonses. Vacca characterized the NYPD’s position as "’Leave us alone. We know what’s best.’" "I will not leave you alone," he continued. "I have a right to know." 

Vallone also argued that traffic data ought to be made more open. "We were elected to do oversight and we need the information to do it," he said. He pointed to two other bills he sponsored which required making information about crime in schools and in parks publicly available. 

Council Member Daniel Garodnick argued that opening up the data would provide the police with new resources to help them promote street safety. "There’s a New Yorker out there who could make an iPhone app in thirty minutes," he said. 

Police_at_120_hearing.JPGNYPD Chief of Transportation James Tuller, right, addresses the City Council’s public safety committee. Photo: Noah Kazis.

The public safety committee was more sympathetic to the NYPD’s other argument, that Intro 120 would divert police resources away from law enforcement. But the NYPD did itself no favors in this discussion. First, department officials claimed that complying with Intro 120 would require the equivalent labor of 23 employees, a number which most council members called into question. Many council members cited the written testimony of former NYPD Chief of Transportation Michael Scagnelli, who stated that the department could comply with the reporting requirements of Intro 120 with very little additional effort.

The claim that it would take significantly more manpower seemed particularly dubious when Lappin presented a spreadsheet from the NYPD’s TrafficStat program [PDF]. The spreadsheet already tracks a wide set of data. "Why does it take any more work to just post that on the web?" asked Lappin. 

Some council members proposed compromises in which only the easiest-to-gather information would be released, which the NYPD uniformly rejected. Garodnick, for example, zeroed in on the department’s Traffic Accident Management System (TAMS) database — which already tracks the date, time and location of all traffic collisions and is fully electronic — as an easily-released data set. 

Similarly, Council Member Daniel Halloran cited his personal experience as a former NYPD officer to reiterate how much data is already computerized, in easy-to-publish formats. Halloran referred to his time on the force to hypothesize about the NYPD’s objections. "Knowing how the system works from the inside," he said, "I understand that you don’t want people to look at this data and jump to conclusions." Even so, Halloran was incredulous when the police stated that releasing TAMS data to the public was unacceptable to them. "Are you really saying that?" he asked.

When the public was given the opportunity to weigh in on Intro 120, all 14 speakers testified in favor, including former NYC DOT commissioner Lou Riccio, an AARP representative, public health professionals, and New Yorkers who have lost loved ones in traffic crashes. "Hopefully we will pass this bill in honor of everyone who’s passed away," said Vallone after hearing the stories of those whose lives were cut short by automobiles.

  • JK

    This is great work by TA. The PD should be embarrassed by this feeble rationalization and fear of public scrutiny. I attended three NYPD TrafficStat sessions from 2000 to 2004. Even then, PD had all of the crash data called for in this legislation data, and more, geocoded and sorted in databases.

    A key piece of data would be where the PD issues summonses, by street. A breakdown by Precinct could show a high level of speed enforcement — but it might all be on the highway crossing that Precinct, and none on streets where bicyclists and pedestrians are. Ironically, I happen to agree with the cops that there is no relationship between speed summonses numbers and bike/ped crashes involving speeders. That’s because I don’t think the PD does a meaningful amount of street speeding enforcement. It’s almost all on the highways.

  • JJM 63

    There are legitimate reasons to withhold data – to avoid political or litigious interference with an ongoing investigation, for example. However, this has to be balanced by the equally legitimate need for citizen and legislative oversight/

  • J

    When you fight so hard to keep things confidential, it just shows that you have something to hide. In this case, the NYPD doesn’t want the public to know that they routinely and systematically ignore street safety.

  • JK

    Read the bill. There are no legal reasons to keep this data secret. Lack of enforcement or selective enforcement has never been a cause for torts against the city. If you get robbed, you will lose in court if you attempt to sue the city for damages claiming enforcement was inadequate. Nor does the bill call for the PD to post specific crash reports with personal details or locations of crashes within a precinct. I wish the law did call for posting the PD’s already generated real time crash maps and crash data. It should. It should also call for PD to break down summonses by date. Ask a cop and they will tell you that a large share of summonsing is at the end of the month as cops meet targets or “quotas.”

  • Steven Faust, AICP

    What was the NYPD hiding in 1973? I was a college intern for NYC DOT, researching bike crashes on Ocean Parkway. DOT had printed computer tables with all crashes, but no bike breakouts, and interns were going blind finding the one bike crash in every 1,000 car crashes. The NYPD had the data on computer files but refused to print a bike crash sort for DOT. This was for DOT, not even the public.

    Nearly 40 years later, we still have the same hiding of basic traffic safety facts. It’s NYPD’s crash and ticket data and DOT and the public still have no need to know. What’s the matter with the police?

    We can’t begin to fix what we don’t know is broken. We know there are problems out there, but no-one can can properly quantify the what, where, when and how much. This may reflect the same thinking that opposes red light cameras – that might put a hard number on red light running. Keep it vague and it can’t be wrong, so it won’t be fixed.

    As for Ocean Parkway, DOT eventually found that the intersection with the Belt Parkway had 6 times as many crashes – both car-car and car-bike – as all the rest of Ocean Parkway put together. The bike path actually disappeared for those 3 blocks, and cyclists had to ride the wrong way into southbound traffic! It took over 20 years, but once the problem was understood, that former free-for-all interchange was totally rebuilt with a complete and continuous bike path. As far as I know, traffic crashes are down to a much lower “normal” level in that interchange. (Whatever “normal” is…)

    As others have commented, including NYPD Chief of Transportation Michael Scagnelli, the data has been computerized by the NYPD for decades. Stripping out strictly personal info and regularly posting the data on line would be a trivial monthly exercise. There probably is an app for that already.

    Isn’t 40 years of hiding public information from the public long enough?

  • For all of my complaints about Sadik-Khan and the MTA, they’re paragons of justice and efficiency compared to NYPD. The rule of thumb with government is that when it insists on keeping secrets, it’s to avoid embarrassing highly-placed officials. Any public benefit it claims is a rationalization and is almost always spurious.

  • Blind Boy Grunt

    Q. How many NYPD big shots does it take to post data to the Web?

    A. 23. One to do the actual posting and 22 to say it can’t be done.

  • mary beth kelly

    Unlike the usual watching-paint-dry pace of democracy, yesterday’s hearing at City Hall was actually exciting!
    It was thrilling to see City Council members Lappin, Garodnick, Vacco, Vallone etc. take on the NYPD brass; challenging their “lines” of defense and demanding transparency. The follow up testimony held attention, leaving all involved with a sense that this is one bill that could raise hackles,eyebrows and fists if not passed. As usual, TA had done its homework!
    Kudos to the courageous and eloquent David Shepherd whose recent loss of his fiance, killed on a street in The Bronx brought tears to our eyes and deepened our resolve to fight the practices that deprive us of livable streets.

  • Donnie Brasco

    Chief Tuller,

    Tune in to the year 2010, and allow us the transparency that every other NYC agency is steam-lining please. Stop with-holding information to avoid more more for you and your civil service crew of goons.

    – Disgusted Mike2010

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