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Civil Servants Behaving Badly, With Deadly Results. What Can Be Done?

2:08 PM EST on November 12, 2009

The killing of Seth Kahn by MTA bus driver Jeremy Philhower was the fourth instance in a recent spate of pedestrian deaths at the hands of public employees, either on or off the job. These fatalities have brought to light disturbing patterns at both the MTA and NYPD that could be putting more New Yorkers at risk.

textingbusdriver_advance.jpgAn MTA express bus driver texts while on duty. Photo: SI Advance

Following its initial coverage of Kahn's death, the Daily News reported that MTA has disciplined or fired 170 bus drivers this year for using mobile devices while on the job -- an increase of 60 percent over all of 2008. The MTA cites increased enforcement as the reason behind the upswing, implying that many of these same drivers have engaged in such grossly negligent behavior for some time. Philhower himself had been suspended for texting while driving, and NYC Transit reportedly wanted to fire him, but an arbitration ruling put him back behind the wheel. He was issued a ticket for failing to yield in Kahn's death, and could again face sanctions from his employer.

The News also reported this week that union reps want NYPD to alter the way it manages shift assignments for detectives. Under the current system, in which shifts can be separated by as little as seven hours, many detectives apparently find themselves with three options: sleep at the precinct house; drive home to the suburbs, then drive back to work with very little rest; or go out and get drunk. In September, off-duty homicide detective Timothy Duffy died when he crashed into a garbage truck on the BQE. Writes the News:

Duffy had ended his shift at 2 a.m. and was due back at work that morning. Rather than drive home to Suffolk County, he remained in the city and had been drinking before the accident, police sources said.

It isn't clear whether changes sought by the Detectives Endowment Association could have prevented the death of Drana Nikac, the 67-year-old grandmother run down by Kevin Spellman in the Bronx, and they would not have saved Vionique Valnord, killed by Officer Andrew Kelly in Brooklyn. In addition to lobbying the department for more humane working hours, police unions should also try to prevent their members from choosing to drink and drive, for their sake and everyone else's. When the police commissioner convenes a special panel in response to repeat fatal offenses committed by your membership, it's clearly time for action.

In addition to Nikac and Kahn, Dorothea Wallace was killed last week by Damon Padmore, a corrections officer with a suspended license, while, though accounts differ regarding the exact circumstances of his death, Luis
Rivera of the Bronx was struck and killed by a city bus driver on Halloween.

We have no statistical data to refer to when it comes to injuries and fatal crashes involving civil servants, but given recent events, it's an issue that deserves attention from within and without. New Yorkers have a right to expect all public agencies -- and especially police and transit workers -- to uphold the highest standards of safety on city streets.

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