NYPD’s Lax Crash Investigations May Violate State Law

Deputy Chief John Cassidy, executive officer of NYPD's transportation bureau, and other department higher-ups at today's City Council hearing on traffic enforcement. Photo: ##Uhttp://gothamist.com/2012/02/15/heres_why_drivers_get_away_with_mur.php##John Del Signore/Gothamist##

Unacceptable. Absurd. “Next to useless.”

Those were just a few terms employed by City Council members today describing the NYPD approach to traffic enforcement. During a four-hour hearing, so packed with spectators and media that some were pointed to an overflow room to listen to testimony, council members grilled department brass on traffic crime prevention and crash investigations and questioned the low number of charges brought against drivers who injure and kill. Council members also heard heartrending testimony from victims of vehicular violence.

The hearing was co-chaired by James Vacca and Peter Vallone, who chair the council’s transportation and public safety committees, respectively.

“Driving in our city is a privilege, not a right,” said Vacca. In his opening remarks, Vacca noted that New Yorkers are more likely to be killed by a speeding driver than a drunk driver, and said that more city pedestrians are struck walking with traffic signals than against. “I want to know that the police department is doing to track down these scofflaws,” said Vacca. “We have to bring these people to their senses. We don’t accept gun violence as a way to die. We shouldn’t accept traffic deaths as a way to die either.”

NYPD officials remained on defense for most of the hearing, as they were quizzed by council members in sometimes heated exchanges. Most questions were fielded by Deputy Chief John Cassidy, executive officer of the department’s transportation bureau. Here are some highlights:

  • Vacca asked if police currently charge drivers who speed or are involved in crashes with reckless endangerment, which Vallone — a former Manhattan prosecutor — said could be done with no changes to existing law. Susan Petito, a senior attorney for NYPD, responded that such data is not segregated, and the department therefore couldn’t say. More generally, Petito said that while reckless endangerment is “available as a tool,” police can’t normally determine probable cause if they don’t witness a violation.
  • NYPD applies the same principle to VTL 1146, the statute that includes Hayley and Diego’s Law as well as Elle’s Law. NYPD protocol mandates that for an officer to issue a ticket under 1146, the officer has to witness the violation. An amendment to Hayley and Diego’s Law aims to close that loophole.
  • Council members learned that there are just 19 investigators on the NYPD Accident Investigation Squad, and that there can be as few as one investigator on duty, depending on the shift. Since department protocol limits the use of the AIS to cases where the victim is killed or is deemed likely to die, and local patrol officers are not trained to perform in-depth crash investigations, cases that involve injuries that are not considered life-threatening receive only cursory attention. When asked by Vallone how it could be that a cyclist or pedestrian could have both legs broken with no possibility of charges against the driver, Cassidy replied, “I don’t set policy.”

  • Public testimony from Steve Vaccaro, the attorney representing the family of cyclist Mathieu Lefevre, revealed that NYPD policy violates the law by deploying the AIS only in cases where the victim is killed or is deemed likely to die. “Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 603A requires that a full­scale AIS ­style investigation be made in all cases of fatality or serious physical harm,” Vaccaro said. “The NYPD patrol guide ignores this.” As NYPD officials had left the room by the time Vaccaro testified, Vallone said he would ask how the department wasn’t “breaking this law on a daily basis.”
  • Council Member Jessica Lappin got into an animated discussion with Petito over traffic crash data. When Lappin asked why NYPD is releasing data in PDF form — and only after the council adopted legislation forcing the department to do so — Petito replied that the department is “concerned with the integrity of the data itself.” Petito said NYPD believes data released on a spreadsheet could be manipulated by people who want “to make a point of some sort.” An incredulous Lappin assured Petito that the public only wants to analyze the data to improve safety, not use it for “evil.”
  • Each precinct has its own traffic safety team, headed by the precinct’s second in command. This came as news to Council Member Brad Lander, who said he had never heard of such a team, despite his attempts to engage the four precincts in his district in traffic-calming efforts. Likewise, after council members heard that each precinct has a traffic safety plan, Lappin asked to see the plans for her district. Petito told Lappin she wasn’t sure the plan was available.
  • While NYPD officials had plenty of gross stats at the ready (one million summonses issued in 2011, etc.), time after time they were unable to produce data when asked. For example, they could not tell Council Member Dan Garodnick how many charges were issued in crashes where the victim was not killed or considered likely to die. “We should have that data,” Garodnick said.
  • After most NYPD higher-ups and council members left the room, those remaining heard from traffic violence victims. Loved ones of Dashane Santana, Mathieu Lefevre, Rasha Shamoon and Stefanos Tsigrimanis related horrific accounts of loss, their pain compounded by callous treatment at the hands of NYPD. Michelle Matson, a cyclist struck by a hit-and-run driver, said that since she survived the crash — with a broken neck, among other injuries — the police essentially stopped working the case. Samira Shamoon, Rasha Shamoon’s mother, said that while her daughter is dead, the driver who killed her — who had a slew of violations on his record at the time of the crash — is driving the streets today. “God help the people of New York,” she said.

During a break in the victims’ testimony, Vacca said today’s hearing was one of the most “riveting” he has ever attended. Echoing the sentiment, Vallone assured those in attendance that their stories prompted today’s hearing. Said Vallone: “There will be laws arising out of this.”

  • MFS

    The panel of the family members and Steve Vacarro was one of the most moving and effective panels I have ever seen at a hearing.

  • Has anyone already written a parser to turn those PDFs (http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/html/traffic_reports/motor_vehicle_accident_data.shtml) into a meaningful database?  Please let me know — I will write one tomorrow, if not.

  • Disqus mangled the link.  It is http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/html/traffic_reports/motor_vehicle_accident_data.shtml

  • Cycler

    It’s really a shame that the NYPD representatives weren’t still in the room to hear the effects that the NYPD’s careless enforcement have had on the lives of real people.

  • Nice post, Brad.  I was shocked by some of the stats that came out.  For example:

    -36K criminal court summonses issued to cyclists. Most of those are going to be riding on the sidewalk and reckless operation of a bicycle, which for technical reasons are returnable in criminal court, not traffic court.  What was surprising to me is that NYPD  have these segregated out, but when asked how many criminal violations by drivers, NYPD didn’t have that statistic.

    -19 AIS investigators is just shocking.  I’m sure that’s part of why they do such a poor job.

    -As others have commented, the number of summonses issued to cyclists and issued to truck drivers is approximately equal.

    -I was also surprised to hear that they have issued 74K speeding summonses last year, but I bet 90%+ of those are on controlled access highways.

    One correction:  I think Tuller is the head of the Transportation Bureau, and I think Deputy Chief Cassidy, who attended the hearing, is #2 at the Transportation Bureau.  Which is significant, because when a few malcontents on Prospect Park West had their double-parking interrupted by a bike lane, DoT COMMISSIONER Sadik-Khan was dragged before the City Council and treated pretty harshly by a number of the Councilmembers, including Vacca.  Today, we didn’t get Ray Kelly, we didn’t get Chief Esposito, and we didn’t even get Tuller, we got the #2 guy at Transportation Bureau.  A sign of how serious (not) NYPD takes this whole issue.

    I was very encouraged to see how many councilmembers came and asked questions.  A clear indicator that a number of them do take this issue seriously.

    And it was remarkable to hear Tish James mention stop and frisk repeatedly, how the number has gone from 100K a year to 600K, and realize that we’ve never had an oversight hearing on stop and frisk.  This was her only opportunity to raise this incredibly important issue in a public setting to NYPD representatives above the precinct level.  NYPD is so insulated, so unaccountable.  Imagine what it would be like if Ray Kelly was mayor.

  • Anonymous

    @twitter-22824076:disqus

    It’s amazing all this Ray Kelly love.  He’s the the head and he should be held accountable for everything.   So, under his tenure we have:

    1.  Incredibly racist and inaccurate training videos on Muslims shown to all cadets, which he said he knew nothing about and then later find out he sat down with the producers and was actually in the video.

    2. Related to 1 above.  Just straight up spying on Muslims, even using the CIA, to create files on people and in their place of worship, solely based on their religion and without any evidence that such individuals were up to anything at all.   Imagine if they did something like that to fundamentalist Christians or Hasidic Jews.

    3.  Ummmm . . . his police, months after they were instructed by Ray Kelly to de-prioritize low-level marijuana arrests, straight up kill an 18 year old in his own bedroom for allegedly attempting to sell a dime bag on the street.  Straight up murder.

    4.  The incredible situation we have with people being killed by cars and the police continually, not giving a f—, while his department issues over 36K criminal summons for freaking cyclists?!?!

    Who the F are these people that think Ray Kelly should be mayor?!?!?!  The same people who wanted Bernie K for DHS head?  Seriously, why isn’t the media piling on more?  The only sustained criticism of Ray Kelly I can find is when I listen to democracy now.  All these rallies and such are back page news I tell ya!

  • Eric McClure

    Petito must’ve been thinking of NBBL’s cherry-picking of PPW crash data in their sad attempt to make it appear that the traffic-calming, safety-enhancing redesign of PPW had by some Opposite World transformation made it less safe rather than more so.  Yeah, some people do manipulate data for evil.

  • J

    Thanks for covering this. Keep up the pressure. Despite his outward callousness, when confronted with testimony Vacca seems to be somewhat reasonable. NYPD too, from what I’ve heard. Without pressure though, there would have been no hearing and no testimony. Keep it up Streetsblog and TA.

  • Boris

    I don’t understand all this talk about witnessing the violation…cops don’t witness most shooting deaths either, but yet people are routinely put away for decades for them. It’s all about the investigation and charges.

  • Lt. Absurdist

    ” Petito said that while reckless endangerment is “available as a tool,”
    police can’t normally determine probable cause if they don’t witness a
    violation. ”

    Unbelievable. Thank goodness the NYPD doesn’t pursue murder charges like this. Sorry! We didn’t see the guy fire the gun, therefore our hands are tied here. We can’t do anything about it. Oh, and by the way, Mr. Murderer, please feel free to take your weapon back and use it again on NYC streets. 

  • Ian Turner

     Vacca said those words? And it’s not April 1? Unbelievable! Perhaps this is a sign that something substantiative will come out of this committee after all.

  • Brad Aaron

    @twitter-22824076:disqus Right re Cassidy’s position. Corrected.

  • Glenn

    Boris is right. A police officer and the DA’s office should be able to use the full array of information – eyewitness accounts, physical evidence, videotape, driving record, etc. to put into place a complete picture of each incident. It’s amazing that a speeding ticket needs a higher level of proof than almost any other crime from robbery to rape to murder.

  • moocow

    I don’t think the Brass at the meeting leaving before the families spoke mattered that much. They were not the target, they weren’t going to really hear it anyway, Cops are better than us, they have guns and can park where ever they like.  That all those different Council members and Press heard their stories, and that Vacca and Vallone heard them- in front of the Press- was very important. The cops don’t care, they even brought up “We don’t make policy, we enforce it,” very early in the hearing. The NYPD needs to be induced to care, through public embarrassment and legislation.
    In the past I have railed against Jimmy Vacca for being counter-productive on Safe Streets, there now seems to be a change with him. I have worked with some amazing actors in my time, either he is better than many of them or, that wasn’t just show.

  • Anonymous

    They should amend the law to force the NYPD to release the data in a truly usable form. The way they defend their policy of making the data purposefully hard to use is incredibly cynical.

    Not that it matters much, of course. The “evildoers” that want to use the data *will* find a way to convert it, whether by writing a parser or by volunteer labor.

  • Russell Trombhone

    New York’s laws are the same as everywhere else. If a pedestrian leaves the curb or other place of safety and enters the path of an automobile, the pedestrian is at fault. It’s a long standing myth that the pedestrian always has the right-of-way. They do on the sidewalk, or with a white cane (California). Insofar as charging murder, the crime requires a malignant heart or malice aforethought. In other words, the driver had to intend to kill someone, specifically, intentionally, not by accident. If they kill someone by accident, and it’s their fault, it’s manslaughter. By way of example, if you are driving along and someone is tailgating you, and you look in your mirror…BOOM, a pedestrian has walked in front of your car, against a red light or pedestrian indicator. Should you get prosecuted for that? 25 to life in the same cell as a serial killer? Pedestrians have only one responsibility, crossing the road. A driver has to modulate speed, watch mirrors, make constant steering corrections and many other subconscious tasks that add to perception-reaction time.

  • Mark Walker

    Russell Trombone is mistaken. The largest percentage of pedestrian crossing deaths from 2005-09, 45 percent, involves peds crossing WITH the walk signal. 38 percent died crossing in the red and 15 percent died outside crosswalks. “This is a classic depressing New York statistic,” says New York Magazine: “Of all types of pedestrians, the group in which most people were killed was the one where everyone followed the rules.” Except the killers behind the wheel, of course.

    http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2010/11/more_new_yorkers_are_killed_at.html

  • Anonymous

    @1cdcfcf7f2530f2279bbf6e5ba4557fd:disqus Finally, someone speaks up for New York’s neglected car drivers! And advances as fact a series of transparently false claims about the law! It’s so surprising that those two things appear in the very same comment.
    I had no idea that if a pedestrian “enters the path of a automobile” the pedestrian is always at fault! No matter whether the driver is blowing a light, driving without lights at night–it’s *always* the pedestrian. I also didn’t realize that all a pedestrian has to do is cross a street–which a uniformly straightforward task in NYC–whereas a driver has by nature ever so many more burdens.
    It makes me think that we should start charging pedestrians for their own deaths. I’m sure you’d be for that, oh legal sage!

  • B4daylight

    so during a hearing the police don’t want to hear the victims they are sworn to protect?

    Seems a bit callous. 

  • Jared T Rodriguez

    There’s so much wrong with @1cdcfcf7f2530f2279bbf6e5ba4557fd:disqus ‘s post. Most NYC pedestrian deaths result from speeding, erratic driving and failing to yield. Sounds like manslaughter is a very good charge for drivers committing these acts. 

  • Joe R.

    @1cdcfcf7f2530f2279bbf6e5ba4557fd:disqus When you’re operating a motor vehicle in a pedestrian-rich environment it’s expected that people will sometimes dart out unexpectedly, particularly small children. As such, you drive at a slow enough speed that you can stop when that occurs, even if it means you can only drive at 5 or 10 mph. Motorists are not guaranteed or obligated to always drive at or above the speed limit.

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