Transparency Must Accompany NYPD Crash Investigation Reforms

NYPD has not filed charges against the driver who careened onto the sidewalk in Long Island City, killing 16-year-old Drudak Tenzin and injuring four others. Photo: ##http://pix11.com/news/stories/car-jumps-curb-in-fatal-queens-accident/#axzz2NKIBY3nB##WPIX##

The New York City Police Department has begun dispatching crash investigators to sites of critical-injury traffic crashes as well as fatalities, the New York Times reported Sunday. And in what the paper called “a symbolic semantic change,” the department is retiring the term “accident”; henceforth, traffic crashes will be called “collisions,” and the Accident Investigation Squad will be renamed the Collision Investigation Squad.

The Times story is pegged to a pledge by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to add personnel to the CIS, communicated in a March 4 letter to City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca. “Kelly’s letter followed hearings last year,” the paper noted, “in which City Council members were critical of the department’s response to crashes” — hearings that were spurred by advocates’ outrage over police whitewashing of 2011 crashes that killed cyclist Mathieu Lefevre and pedestrian Clara Heyworth, both in Brooklyn. The Times called Kelly’s announcement a “marked shift of protocol.” What is less certain is whether the reported changes to investigation procedures will put a real dent in rampant NYC street danger.

Beefing up the squad and expanding NYPD crash reconstruction efforts is both welcome and overdue. In recent years, even fatalities such as those of Lefevre and Heyworth have been poorly analyzed or not analyzed at all, likely because the tiny (21-person) Accident Investigation Squad was charged with investigating all 250 crash deaths per year. In Lefevre’s case, investigators failed to document a broken helmet or obtain video footage from security cameras. In Heyworth’s case, an officer at the scene pronounced her unlikely to die. Kelly’s implication that the CIS will soon be staffed to investigate more than a portion of the 3,000 serious-injury crashes in NYC each year seems dubious at best; and NYPD officers will still determine if victims meet the criteria of severely injured.

But even a fully staffed CIS is only a start. What’s really needed is full disclosure of the reports themselves. Indeed, we believe that a key to creating safer streets is releasing all CIS reports — with their meticulous diagrams of crash position vis-à-vis intersections and crosswalks, descriptions of pre-crash actions and movement by participants, and, perhaps most critically, inferred vehicle speed upon braking and upon impact.

We know that in a large majority of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, the victim would be alive if the driver had been obeying the law, which includes driving with due care. All four comprehensive analyses of NYC pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities to date — two by street safety advocates, and two by city agencies — have laid the majority of blame at the feet of drivers.

Yet these reports, largely dry and statistical, have had only limited impact beyond advocates and health professionals. The prevailing view remains that pedestrians and cyclists mowed down by drivers were “unlucky” or “clueless” if not “asking for it.” The tabloid-driven blame game gives crossing with earbuds, riding a bike, and the occasional absent crossing-guard precedence over speeding, aggressive turning into crosswalks, and operating a motor vehicle without constant due care. This cultural entitlement supports the criminal justice system’s coddling of deadly driving and undergirds the climate of fear and intimidation that still reigns over our streets.

NYC drivers have killed more than 170 pedestrians and cyclists over the past 13 months. In the vast majority of these cases the NYPD has declared, often just hours after the crash, that there was “no criminality suspected,” even when the driver had clearly committed one or more traffic violations. This doesn’t just exculpate the individual driver; it furthers the perception that turning into a pedestrian in a crosswalk, running down a bicyclist, even careening onto a sidewalk are all “reasonable” behavior that, by legal definition, does not rise to the level of criminal negligence.

Full disclosure and divulging of the NYPD crash reports might begin to reverse this decades-old practice of defining drivers’ deviancy down. Measurements of skid marks, reconstructions of speeds, placement of pedestrians in crosswalks as they were run down — these are the kinds of specifics that can refute the mantra of law-abiding drivers and expose as a lie the NYPD’s knee-jerk pronouncement of “no criminality suspected.” Indeed, details that can refresh these outrages in the media and maintain them in the city’s collective consciousness could help counter the syndrome we wrote about in Killed By Automobile, whereby “deaths by automobile … flicker briefly across the city’s consciousness and then flutter away, leaving in their wake only grieving families and friends, and the knowledge that the grim equation on the streets remains.”

Conversely, as long as the NYPD can declare that there is no criminality suspected while denying the public the right to review their investigations, changing the word “accident” to “collision” will be little more than window-dressing. If NYPD declares that there is no criminality suspected in most deaths, why would we expect them to be any more critical of severe injuries?

The Times article alluded to a lone instance in which the new NYPD policy of investigating severe injury led to criminal charges. (Unsurprisingly, it was a car-on-car crash.) A handful of aggressive investigations and even prosecutions won’t be enough. To truly change our neighbors’ and officials’ hearts and minds about the everyday driving culture that kills vulnerable road users and discourages walking and biking, the full facts of the damage from traffic violence need to be laid bare to the public. Criminality must be suspected — routinely and regularly — when pedestrians and cyclists are killed by automobile.

  • Roscoe George

    It appears to me that Kelly is putting old wine into a new bottle!

    There is something that I do not undersgtand.  I believe that pedestrians and cyclists have the right of way over motor vehicles.  If this is true then whenever a pedesgtrian or c yclist is hit by a motor vehicle then the victim’s right of way has  been invaded AND THE OPERATOR OF THE MOTOR VEHICLE HAS BEEN RESPONSIBLE FOR THE “INVASION.”  THEREFORE THERE HAS TO BE A PRESUMPTION THAT, IN THE LEAST, THE OPERATOR OF THE VEHICLE HAS BEEN DRIVIG IN AN UNSAFE MANNER AND SHOULD BE HELD ACCOUNGTABLE FOR THIS INFRACTION OF THE MOTOR VEHICLE LAWS!

  • Williams Zabel

    Thanks for highlighting this public safety issue.  It is outrageou that the police would not consider it criminal for drivers to commit traffic violations that result in pedestrian and cyclists being injured and/or killed.   

  • Charles,

    I agree wholeheartedly that it would be tragic if advocates for safer streets declared victory now and stopped nagging the NYPD to change its attitude.

    I moved last year from London, where cycling campaigners, safer streets groups and so on remain legitimately angry at the Metropolitan Police’s reluctance to tackle many traffic crimes (I describe some of my own experiences with police in London here: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/06/cops-pedallers-and-why-theyre-picking.html). But the Met’s attitude was still significantly better than the NYPD’s. I continue to think that a big part of the problem is simple laziness. It remains, as I remarked in a blogpost on policing (http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/10/do-as-you-like-motorists-and-dont-blame.html) far easier for NYPD officers to fill up quotas of successful traffic prosecutions by booking cyclists for running red lights than by chasing after speeding drivers. As long as that remains the priority, things are unlikely to change.

    But I am mildly optimistic about the changes. The new CIS officers will presumably have to find something to do. They are unlikely to want to sit around waving every investigation through as “no criminality suspected”. That should produce at least some greater propensity to investigate. If there are more investigations, that should start producing more new-worthy court cases. That might, if one is truly optimistic, lead the police to look harder at how they can start cutting the number of such crashes.

    Even before that happens, however, I wonder if there’s room for a new imperative for the NYPD’s traffic division. The number of people killed in 2011 (the last reported year) on the streets in London – a city of comparable size and with comparable traffic problems – was 155. Might it not be worthwhile to set the NYPD a target of reducing New York’s traffic deaths to that level by, say, 2020, while maintaining growth in cycling and walking (I’d include the last to make sure the police didn’t try to cut the numbers simply by terrifying all the vulnerable road users off the streets). Failure to meet milestones towards the target should have implications for the promotion prospects of the traffic squad’s head. I suspect that, under such pressure, the NYPD’s attitudes might change quite quickly.

  • Anon

    New talking point for CIS investigators:  “No criminality suspected.  It was just an unintentional collision.”

  • So many important points in here, Charlie and Keegan. Thanks!

    I could not agree more that by announcing “no criminality suspected” hours after a crash, while withholding the details, NYPD heaps a stinging insult on families already grievously injured.  Worse still are the ubiquitous “anonymous” NYPD leaks of blame-the-victim details which often leak out in the tabloids while official silence is maintained to the family.

    NYPD knows how to delay responses to Freedom of Information Law requests long enough so that the press and the public have forgotten about a crash, but no so long that they would ever face consequences for their delay.  This strategy results in steady coverage of tragic “accidents” without any meaningful analysis of causes.

    The results of crash investigations should be made public with appropriate redactions to protect the privacy of victims and their survivors, but with enough detail to allow us to understand how the conduct of the people involved and the road condition  and design may have contributed to the crash.  An additional important step would be moving the CIS out of the Highway Division, where it is completely insulated from the public, and requiring it to hold periodic meetings where members of the public can raise concerns about crash investigations, as is the case with officers assinged to NYPD precincts.

  • Pedestrians and bicyclists do some stupid things. I saw a woman in my neighborhood in Brooklyn just the other day riding a bike with noise-cancelling headphones on. Pedestrians step into the crosswalk while texting. Bicyclists run lights and stop signs and ride the wrong way down streets and bike lanes all the time. Cars are the major culprits, I wouldn’t deny that for a second, but they’re not the only ones.

    As for the word “accident” – I loved the quote that Alex Cockburn found once – an accident is the normal raised to a higher level of intensity.

  • Zoelwaldron

    I work in Long Island City near where the crash occurred yesterday, and have long felt very unsafe as a pedestrian in this area. There are several high schools, La Guardia Community College, plus other city agencies, and we are overrun by traffic. In my opinion, this location needs a complete pedestrian-friendly redesign, stringent enforcement of traffic regulations, and deterrents against speeding, running red lights, parking on the sidewalk, etc.

  • Augusto

    Thank you for this excellent piece and blazing trails for safer streets. Keep the pressure on. As ridership grows, the NYPD must enforce laws against reckless driving and YES investigate automobile criminality. RIP Jenni Jenkins.

    Augusto

  • Doug the whole point here is that when a crash happens we deserve to know exactly how, from the best available evidence, so that we aren’t tempted to jump to faulty conclusions based on what we saw someone else do last week.

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