Citizens Hammer NYPD Commissioner Kelly on Street Safety

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly at Baruch College last week

The following report was submitted by Carol Wood, a Murray Hill resident, along with Emilia Crotty, Bicycle Education Program Associate for Bike New York. Both are members of the NYC Bicycling Coalition.

Last Thursday evening, March 20, nearly 200 East Siders turned out for a "Town Hall Meeting" with NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly at Baruch College. The event was sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who touted it in her latest newsletter as a chance to "discuss crime and quality of life issues."

As a New Yorker whose neighborhood is tormented by homicidal drivers — my corner is #1 in pedestrian deaths citywide — I jumped at the chance to raise our top cop’s awareness of street safety. And I wasn’t alone: In the elevator to the 14th floor auditorium, a woman began telling me how afraid she was to ride her bike around Murray Hill and that she hoped people would ask questions about traffic.

In her brief opening remarks, Rep. Maloney had to perform a little bait-and-switch: The commissioner would be taking questions on "the safety of our streets and homeland security," she said. But this mandate was ignored by the audience, which asked questions on a variety of topics. Interestingly, the issue of traffic safety was raised repeatedly.

You could say that the NYPD has been so successful reducing the murder rate (496 killed in 2007, out of 8.2 million people) that it leaves New Yorkers free to worry about less heinous crimes. Or you could say that the department really is neglecting its responsibility for traffic enforcement.

Kelly spoke about police initiatives to reduce crime, such as Operation Impact — pairing police academy grads with seasoned cops and pouring them into crime "hot spots" — and the city’s Real Time Crime Center, with its use of high technology to gather data and its 111 employees who assimilate and distribute those data to officers on the street. The commissioner stated that every day 1,000 NYPD members are deployed to work on counterterrorism, given that NYC is at the "top of the terrorist target list." These accomplishments are proceeding despite a force that has 5,000 fewer officers than in 2001, and whose new academy recruits, offered a starting salary of just $25,000, often leave for better-paying jobs.

As the second audience member to get the mic, I told the commissioner that local streets are a more immediate threat to my safety than terrorism. (I hastened to add my respect, as a cyclist, for both traffic laws and pedestrians — expecting someone in the room to grumble about crazed bicyclists.) I asked: Since the Mayor’s PlaNYC 2030 includes initiatives for increased traffic enforcement, what were the commissioner’s plans for improving traffic, not only to reduce congestion, but also threats posed to cyclists and peds, of whom 200 were killed last year? A couple of these comments drew applause.

Kelly seemed to acknowledge the department’s weakness in traffic enforcement by recalling its personnel shortfall and revealing that the 130 additional traffic enforcement agents envisioned by PlaNYC have fallen to budget cuts. Traffic deaths last year were the lowest they’d been since 1931, Kelly said — adding that even one traffic death was too many. On this point, to me, he sounded sincere.

Still, I wondered how his department would reduce the traffic toll, considering the disparate priorities given to preventing the sporadic likelihood of terrorist attack versus the unrelenting daily assault of the automobile.

Kelly mentioned areas in which the department is trying to improve traffic safety, beginning with targeting bicyclists who ride on the sidewalk. But the audience didn’t bite at that red herring. So he followed with red light enforcement for both cars and bikes.

Before he finished, a woman in the front row launched a harangue about aggressive drivers. As observed by Emilia Crotty:

The woman, who had been hit by a car, made an important point: That NYPD officers on the street and at intersections make it their priority to move motorized traffic, not to protect pedestrians’ crosswalk space or their safety.

She repeatedly stated that it is this "car first" attitude that makes streets dangerous. She also commented that officers need to focus on more accurately reporting crashes, particularly by questioning the driver AND the pedestrian/bicyclist involved, and by correctly reporting the physical details of the crash (her own "accident report" mistakenly described the crash scenario).

Someone mentioned that car crashes were preventable, not "accidents," drawing a loud round of applause.

Shortly after, a man complained about the exercises in which officers gather in packs and then race their squad cars around the city (a.k.a. "Critical Mass for Cops"). Kelly said this is a homeland security exercise intended to keep terrorists off guard because they would not know where the cops would end up next (another CM tactic).

Maloney interjected that the NYPD’s tactic of gathering in various places had helped to break up the drug trade in her former East Harlem neighborhood, by "disrupting their activities." This rationale did little to satisfy a complaint that police tactics are disrupting citizens’ activities, rather than those of terrorists.

From that point forward many of the questions from the audience addressed homeland security, including data collection and intelligence. Some speakers supported more wiretapping; others claimed that we live in a police state. Sprinkled in between were very specific comments from individuals living next to drug addicts and nightclubs or who have difficulty traveling in a wheelchair due to homeland security measures.

Photo: Carol Wood

  • Recently, I was surprised to see the Commander of DC’s 1st (Police) District (the city has 7) at a February meeting of a local community board’s public space and transportation committee–which featured a presentation on streets as places–as well as later forums sponsored by the Ward Councilmember on pedestrian issues.

    So it can happen.

  • Dave

    Did parking placard abuse come up? The fact that police feel they are above-the-law when it comes to parking?

    What about the impact on congestion on emergency response times? Their “Critical Mass” exercises are often stuck in traffic…any mention there?

    Any mention of the blatant harassment of cyclists and the oft-times illegal removal and destruction of bicycles?

  • I was riding my bike on Broadway up in Inwood one evening when 20 maybe 30-something squad cars zoomed by in one of those emergency drills. It was Broadway and Dongan Place, which was covered here on Streetsblog not to long ago as being a particular dangerous stretch of road. If I didn’t pull over when I heard the sirens, I’m sure I would have been run down. I’m surprised they didn’t hit any pedestrians considering they came around a blind curve at about 50mph and flew straight through a series of red lights. I didn’t see any officers stopped to hold traffic.

  • ddartley

    This is very exciting to hear people complaining to Kelly about bad driving.

  • Carol Wood

    Richard–Rep. Maloney and the Commissioner also encouraged people to attend the community councils put on monthly by each NYPD precinct to raise issues of concern, such as traffic safety. Dates for the councils are on the precinct’s Web page.

    Dave–it sounds like you should have been at this forum!

    Konrad–I recently passed a “Cop Mass” in Central Park on a weekday, lined up near the Engineers Gate. Didn’t see them arrive or leave, however.

  • Ero

    Thanks for going and speaking on behalf of the rest of us. Sounds like you communicated clearly and well. The more of this, the better city we’ll have.

  • Josh

    I strongly agree with the “woman in the front row” about officers stationed at intersections. I live near the intersection of Flatbush Avenue Extension and Tillary Street in Downtown Brooklyn and it’s a good thing I’ve learned the traffic patterns there because the police officers stationed there pay precious little attention to pedestrian safety. One time I almost got flattened by a car making an illegal U-turn coming down off the Manhattan Bridge to head back up towards it, with two cops there, and I don’t think they even noticed. They certainly didn’t stop or ticket the guy.

  • Ombud

    Yeah, I’ve definitely had some issues with Traffic Agents waving car traffic down on my head while in the middle of the cross-walk (Atlantic and 4th) with the light, or with them doing the same while cycling and I have signal to get off the W’burg Bridge bike path.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Ombud, it’s my understanding that traffic agents trump all signals and signs. If I see an agent, I pay attention to them and ignore the light. If they don’t wave me through, I wave, call or try to make eye contact.

  • Ian D

    Yeah, but Angus, the problem is that you’ll be starting to cross the street and the traffic agent suddenly starts waving cars through the light right at you. It because the agent is there to move cars and ignores pedestrians.

    We had that problem with the agents that Alan Gerson got assigned to protect pedestrians during the Houston St. reconstruction project – they thought they were there to expedite cars, not prevent them from running people over. The agent does take precedence over the traffic light, but if they don’t consider pedestrians in their actions – well, it’s like having a walk signal that expects you to cross 4 lanes of traffic in 3 seconds.

  • Ian D

    By the way, brilliant use of language to call the cop-surge “Critical Mass for Cops” or maybe “NYPD Critical Mass”. The latter would play better in the press (non-tabloid). I’d like to see that used more widely.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Yeah, but Angus, the problem is that you’ll be starting to cross the street and the traffic agent suddenly starts waving cars through the light right at you.

    I see, Ian. That sucks. The agents I’ve seen have been more pro-pedestrian than that. Sounds like they need some training – and for their commanders to set their priorities right.

  • Hell’s Kitchen is dominated by the Lincoln Tunnel and an unresponsive Port Authority. Residents are threatened constantly by NJ drivers eager to get home – too often one person per vehicle. To cut NYPD enforcement is wrong and not good government. For public safety and cleaner air the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association ( is one of many local groups that support Congestion Pricing. TOO MANY CARS here and we want a moratorium on new parking garages.


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