Ariel Russo, 4, Killed by Unlicensed Teen and NYPD Pursuit Protocol

The driver who allegedly struck and killed 4-year-old Ariel Russo and injured her grandmother during a police chase on the Upper West Side Tuesday morning has been charged with manslaughter. But if authorities and the media place 100 percent of the blame on a kid who tried taking the family car to school, a conviction won’t make the public any safer.

Ariel Russo

NYPD says Franklin Reyes, 17, was stopped on 89th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues for driving across several lanes to make a turn, according to the Times and the Post. As officers approached the Nissan SUV, Reyes “sped off” north on Amsterdam Avenue, and the officers “jumped back in their car and gave chase,” the Times said.

Reyes, who has a learner’s permit and had taken his family’s vehicle without permission, drove for eight blocks at unknown speeds before he attempted a left turn onto 97th Street at an estimated speed of 34 mph, officials said. At some point, according to reports, Reyes jumped the curb. From the Times:

The S.U.V. pinned the victims against the security gate of a corner restaurant, the police said. As the driver reversed in an attempt to get away, he may have struck one or both of the victims again, the police said. He crashed into a parked car on the other side of the street, they said.

FDNY said responders arrived eight minutes after the crash. “It took way too long to get an ambulance here,” said Steven Davis, a witness and volunteer EMT who lives on the corner of 97th and Amsterdam, to the Times. Ariel was pronounced dead at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt. Her grandmother, 58-year-old Katia Gutierrez, was in stable condition, the Post said.

The crash occurred at approximately 8:15 a.m., when neighborhood sidewalks are packed with kids. Ariel and Gutierrez were struck outside Holy Name School, where Ariel attended pre-K. She had a younger brother.

Reports say Reyes was charged with manslaughter and vehicular manslaughter. Since he had not yet been arraigned, as of this morning Cy Vance’s office could not confirm the charges.

The Post says Reyes told police he took the car to drive to school, and fled because he didn’t want to be caught without a licensed driver. A strong argument could be made that teenagers have no place behind the wheel in New York City — and, for that matter, that carmakers should be required to equip vehicles with technology that makes them accessible only to licensed drivers — but we’ll save those issues for later.

The Times notes that NYPD guidelines “instruct officers to call off a chase if the risk involved in continuing is greater than the danger posed to the public in letting the person get away.” The NYPD Patrol Guide states that, “Department policy requires that a vehicle pursuit be terminated whenever the risks to uniformed members of the service and the public outweigh the danger to the community if [the] suspect is not immediately apprehended.”

It is well established that police don’t know what to expect when they make a traffic stop. It’s also known that traffic stops often lead to arrests for other crimes. And by keeping in place a policy that allows officers to decide whether or not to initiate vehicular pursuits on city streets, NYPD bears at least some responsibility for what happens when chases occur.

In this case, as long as they had the plate number, police should have been able to locate the vehicle and the driver with little difficulty. After the death of Karen Schmeer, who like Ariel Russo was killed during an NYPD chase in the 24th Precinct, Deputy Inspector Kathleen O’Reilly said that even the shooting of a police officer probably should not warrant a vehicular pursuit. “We’ve got ballistics. We’ve got evidence,” O’Reilly said. “We’ll track them down.”

It goes without saying that the driver in this crash is at fault, and that he should not have had access to car keys. But the public should be able to trust the police to make better decisions than an adolescent male.

As it stands, police have to make a snap judgment. A fleeing driver might have just murdered someone, or he might have shoplifted cold medicine. In this instance, they made the wrong call. And a little girl is dead.

But again, you don’t see electeds or the media calling for NYPD to change its chase procedures, and you don’t see Mayor Michael Bloomberg or Commissioner Ray Kelly owning up to the department’s role in this completely preventable tragedy. Until that happens, regardless of the outcome of this case, the next one is inevitable.

  • Ian Dutton

    Wait – are you saying that we should treat driving as a privilege that must be earned, and not a right as it is clearly defined in the Bill of Rights? What, and join all those scary third-world European socialist nations with their equal-access healthcare and stunningly low pedestrian fatality rates?

  • Anonymous

    Do you ever see a circumstance where a police chase should be called off in light of possible dangers to the public? And if so, under what circumstances (pretending that you are the boss or supervisor)?

    I’m sympathetic to the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” but nobody said being a police officer was easy. The police have incredible power. I don’t see harm in seeking accountability, even if, it’s over zealous at times.

  • nes125

    Actually, yes I have . One time, we were parked and some dudes roared by us on 8th ave, right around 145th street. We didnt even bother trying to go after them, because our boss would have called it off anyway. Cops understand this, and the cops that stopped this car probably felt, at the time, that there was good reason to chase.

    The accountability you refer to is ‘indemnification’. If parties decide to sue the city, the cops in this case will probably be indemnified and the city will cover any damages. Again, that is the reason this process (indemnification) exist. It is really hard to know what cops are dealing with, until after the fact.

  • Anonymous

    Last Sunday a man shot three other men in East Flatbush. The cops responded and the man ran away. Instead of shooting at him–and potentially harming bystanders–the cops let him get away. He’s now been arrested. And people in East Flatbush are grateful for both the arrest and the measured, intelligent response from the police.

    Rah rah kill them all instantly types (this guy could’ve been a terrorist! he was certainly armed and dangerous!) have a hard time understanding that people grasp both (a) the dilemmas faced by the police and (b) the importance of prudence in the use of potentially deadly force.

    What the police don’t seem to recognize very clearly is that cars are deadly force. (See Robinson, Tamon.)

  • Brad Aaron

    There is and will continue to be plenty of focus on the driver. But current policy puts police in an impossible situation, and innocent people continue to be killed and hurt. The answer is not to mourn the dead for a day or two, put the driver away (as long as the courts allow it), and do it all over the next time.

    Believe me, it’s not nearly as easy to “second guess” the police as it is to parachute in and heckle anonymously.

  • When the dudes “roared by” was it a police chase that was called off, or reckless driving? If it’s the former, why not assume there as well that the dudes were terrorists plotting mass murder?

    It seems like anyone fleeing police is presumably a terrorist, so the risk in continuing a pursuit is always outweighed by the danger of not immediately apprehending the suspect. Terrorism fears completely undermine the guideline, so why have it at all?

    On the other hand, maybe what the police are assuming here, and how they accordingly act, is not what the public wants. That’s why we have guidelines, so we can understand and direct our own government’s activities.

    After all, look what happened. He wasn’t a terrorist, but he did kill a child. That’s a pretty bad outcome, one we would like to avoid in the future. It’s one more person than has been killed by terrorists in New York in the past ten years, to go along with the thousands of others killed by non-terrorist motorists. Are current police efforts and procedures aligned with ongoing and measurable dangers to the public?

    In America we “quarterback” our government on any day of the week. That’s the whole idea.

  • Anonymous

    Today’s NYT article drops the chase time down to 23 seconds and includes this section:

    “The N.Y.P.D. car was literally feet behind this S.U.V.,” he said. “The siren on that cop car, it was only the low-pitch one that was going boop-bwoop, boop-bwoop. No wailing sirens, no warning that this thing was coming.”

    Sheldon Fine, 64, was coming out of Bagel Basket, near 90th Street, and getting
    into a taxi when he said he saw what appeared to be a “scene of a highway chase.”

  • Anonymous

    I trust that you read Streetsblog when it, over and over and over, puts the focus on drivers’ culpability for all kinds of deadly collisions that the police just shrug off by saying “no criminality.”

  • nes125

    “When the dudes “roared by” was it a police chase After all, look what happened. He wasn’t a terrorist, but he did kill a child. That’s a pretty bad outcome, one we would like to avoid in the future. It’s one more person than has been killed by terrorists in New York in the past ten years, to go along with the thousands of others killed by non-terrorist motorists. Are current police efforts and procedures aligned with ongoing and measurable dangers to the public?that was called off, or reckless driving? If it’s the former, why not assume there as well that the dudes were terrorists plotting mass murder?”

    It was reckless driving. Nothing had come over the radio.

    “It seems like anyone fleeing police is presumably a terrorist, so the risk in continuing a pursuit is always outweighed by the danger of not immediately apprehending the suspect. Terrorism fears completely undermine the guideline, so why have it at all?”

    We do live in whole new world dont we since 9/11 and even the Boston Marathon?

    “On the other hand, maybe what the police are assuming here, and how they accordingly act, is not what the public wants. That’s why we have guidelines, so we can understand and direct our own government’s activities.”

    Again, very easy to suggest after the fact.

    “After all, look what happened. He wasn’t a terrorist, but he did kill a child. That’s a pretty bad outcome, one we would like to avoid in the future. It’s one more person than has been killed by terrorists in New York in the past ten years, to go along with the thousands of others killed by non-terrorist motorists. Are current police efforts and procedures aligned with ongoing and measurable dangers to the public?”

    Many a possible chase is either not initiated like the example I gave or called off by a boss as soon as it starts. That alongside other policies in place makes the NYPD a very different place to work than what is seen on tv. At that, I think it is for this reason that if policies were changed even further, then whats the point? Cops already have to think twice, if not three times, before discharging their weapon for fear of a stray bullet hitting someone, God forbid you get a call of armed individual over the radio and see someone that fits the description and you S/Q/F, especially given the recent public scrutiny. Coupled with police chase policy, if you want to further ‘align’ policies, then I dont see the point in being a cop at all. Instead let everyone just play cop and hope that lawbreakers dont break the law instead of taking police action when appropriate.

    “In America we “quarterback” our government on any day of the week. That’s the whole idea.”

    So, overall I hope you are that sympathetic when you are a victim of a crime that may involve quick and snap decisions by police, like for example a carjacking and a unit happens to be in the vicinity. However, the unit decides that instead of chasing and endangering the public they will just call it over the radio, put a description over and fill out a report. I have seen this argument come and go when folks are on the outside looking in. However, when the tables are turned and they are the victims, one of the first things they will say is “Well, officer, are you going to do something?” I hope you appreciate this more measured approach when it involves you as opposed to someone else. And, make no mistake about it: To continue to point the finger incessantly at police officers in these sort of situations will just make them second-guess themselves further and opt not to take necessary police action in situations where it was warranted.

  • nes125

    “But current policy puts police in an impossible situation”

    Yes, that is pretty much the gist of my point above and contention with this article. To squarely lay the blame on police totally misses how hard it is for police to do their job given the city in which they serve.

    As the policy stands now, police pursuits in NYC are quite rare and almost always get called off by a boss when they come over the radio.

  • Ian Turner

    Hi nes125,

    I don’t think I have much to add to this discussion, but I will note that from my perspective we do not “live in whole new world dont we since 9/11 and even the Boston Marathon”. We still live in the same world where traffic crashes are a leading cause of death and you are less likely to be a victim of terrorism than you are to be struck by lightning, be killed by an asteroid, or even have identical quadruplets.

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/03/30/15-things-more-likely-to-happen-than-winning-mega-millions.html

  • nes125

    Hi Ian.

    In principle, I would agree with you. However, whenever something goes wrong, the “blame game” begins and people want to point fingers. It always seem that cops are the ones to blame because they “should know better”, “stop acting like cowboys”, etc. In the post 9/11 world coupled with the internet, this “blame game” goes viral and before you know it,you got folks in Japan weighing in what happened in midtown Manhattan.

    Listen, I know the area where this happened. I went to school at HNJ on 97th and Amsterdam. Would I have initiated a pursuit? Probably not, given the time of day and amount of traffic at that time. Two things come to mind: 1) Did the cops call in the car stop to Central originally? I can remember many a car stop in which I didnt tell Central anything. With that said, if they called it in, that would have given the cops a moment to glance at the plate. Then if the car takes off, depending on the circumstances, just call it in to Central. Again, thats a judgement call on the cop. 2) When the driver took off, did the cops call that into Central? The reason I ask is because the driver was pulled over at 87th st. The accident didnt occur until 97th st when the driver attempted to turn. That was 10 blocks. If they put it over the radio, I would be hard pressed to imagine the 24 Sgt not coming over the radio and calling it off, again, especially given the time of day. Plus, they were approaching 96th st which is a relatively major thoroughfare in the area, again especially given that time of day.

    Given the circumstances, the NYPD will conduct an investigation (I would imagine Highway would be one of the entities involved). They (department) will assess everything. It just bothers me that people are so quick to judge the cops involved in this situation before all the facts are laid out. Let the process put in place for these events do its job.

  • Ian Turner

    Hi nes125,

    I’m not trying to dispute anything you said here. I just wanted to point out that 9/11 and Boston changed very little in terms of the risk of violence faced by individual citizens.

    –Ian

  • Joe

    This is a good place to discuss the role of the police. However, I feel that the police made the right decision in giving chase. They pulled a driver over and he fled. The chase lasted for eight blocks. That is less than 1/2 mile.

    What factors indicate that the police should not have given chase? Unless you believe that the police should never chase someone running from a traffic stop, then this seems like perfectly acceptable actions on the part of the officers.

    The police should not flip a coin to determine whether they should chase someone running from a traffic stop. They had no way of knowing what danger this guy presented to the community, only that he was breaking the law. Franklin Reyes made a series of bad decisions and he should be the only one responsible for those decisions.

  • nes125

    Hola Ian…

    Okie dokie. Point taken and agreed. 🙂

  • Mark, fair point. I doubt my proposal would get much traction at all, but if it did, a roll-out in Manhattan only would make sense. As for driver education, when the driver who gave me a broken wrist last October was recently deposed, he testified that he got a driver’s license in New Jersey without taking a road test–unbelievable! Can any one confirm that NJ has done away with road tests?

  • AJ

    The police are not at fault for this child’s death but the article is addressing that police can assert their powers in ways that can be harmful. I don’t think NYPD did anything wrong in what the article describes here (remember news doesn’t give the whole truth) but it is an interesting topic. Police are often overly aggressive. In NYC they intimidate the public instead of protecting them, they are especially quick to intimidate teens that don’t know their rights or have the capitol to hire a lawyer to defend them. R.I.P. Ariel Russo, I wish a fast recovery for her grandmother, and peace to all of her family.

  • Andrew

    Wait. They drove 10 blocks (half a mile) in 23 seconds? That’s an average (average!) of 78 miles per hour.

    Scary.

  • Alexis

    So what’s the solution? Should the police stop pulling cars over for fear that the driver will flee and hit someone? This occurred in 11 blocks, even if the cops had not pursued this kid do you really think he was gonna stop driving such a sort distance from where he was pulled over? I read in another article that this boys mother bought him that car. I also read that the super of his building had seen him dropping his siblings off while driving alone. So why not blame the mother for buying this kid a car and failing to keep the keys away from him and the super for knowing that this kid was driving around alone? I also read that he was arrested for armed robbery out in Nassau County and released without bail. So while we are at it lets blame the judge who released him. The point is this guy is the only one responsible for this poor little girls death.

  • “It was reckless driving.”

    So it wasn’t a circumstance were a police pursuit was called off, but one where the pursuit was never on. No one actively defied police instructions to stop. But as soon as someone does they are a presumed terrorist and the danger of continuing the pursuit is outweighed by the danger of not immediately apprehending the suspected terrorist?

    “We do live in whole new world dont we since 9/11 and even the Boston Marathon?”

    Only if we choose to. We can officially scrap a guideline that is ignored in practice and embrace this brave new world, or reconsider the wisdom of making these assumptions in criminal circumstances that are so much more common, and on the whole more fatal to the public, than terrorist attacks.

    “I hope you appreciate this more measured approach when it involves you as opposed to someone else.”

    Someone else like the 4 year-old who is the topic of this post? Whether you think I’m a hypocrite is beside the point so I’ll leave that alone. But even if so, I have to worry about my benz getting jacked the same as I have to worry about my zeppelin catching fire.

    My opinion is simply that government power must be regulated. You’ve at first endorsed an argument that would render a police guideline irrelevant in every case where it would apply, and that concerns me. If this view is widely held, then the greatest hypocrisy in this discussion is the patrol guide itself.

    But later you’ve said you probably wouldn’t have pursued if you were there, so I guess the whole terrorism thing was, as usual, a distraction.

    Let’s see what the internal investigation finds, indeed. It is my sincere hope that it is thorough, fair, public, and instructive.

  • nes125

    Hello Nathan. Thanks for the well-written reply. I agree and as suggested before do await the results of any investigation being conducted.

    The Patrol Guide is just that, a guide. It is not the law and you only need to look at the New York CPL for what is the law. As such, historically, it is possible that an officer can be held accountable by the Department for violating the Patrol Guide but not criminally because he/she did not violate the law. No “scrapping” is being done here. As far as the guide goes, the officers are accountable to the department. If you have a problem with this, then suggest to change the law regarding police pursuits and general public safety to reflect the guide more closely and make cops accountable to the people criminally (as they would if they use deadly physical force illegally) if they violate such statute.

    Personally, no I would not have started the chase, as I had not done in my previous example. However, I reserve comment for these incidents until an investigation, that is well underway, is completed because I was not there. What I do not appreciate is articles like this already suggesting that the cops were wrong, when nothing has been officially reviewed and reported.

    Someone posted this from the NYT referring to the Guide:

    ‘The Times notes that NYPD guidelines “instruct officers to call off a chase if the risk involved in continuing is greater than the danger posed to the public in letting the person get away.” ‘

    I was gonna get into a long-tirade about post 9/11 and the public’s higher expectation of more safety given how many personal liberties (airports, patriot act, latest headlines about government snooping phone/internet, etc) have left us. But, instead, I will refer to the Patrol Guide quip above and the part “….danger posed to the public in letting the person get away.” Again, obviously 99% of people being pulled over by cops are not wanted criminals let alone potential terrorists. But, that 1% probably reflect the “danger” the guide alludes to and given the additional sacrifices the general public has had to make, there is a greater public demand that officials get that 1% right more of the time. Couple that with the unknowns associated with car stops, and I would rather hear what an official investigation uncovers rather than the Monday-morning QB’s who already want to lay blame on the cops and not the kid who refused to stop when ordered to pull over.

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