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Council Members Call on Ray Kelly to Reform NYPD Crash Investigations

4:10 PM EDT on July 25, 2012

Commissioner Ray Kelly and the New York City Police Department cannot continue to let thousands of serious injuries caused by dangerous driving go uninvestigated each year, said a group of City Council members, street safety advocates, and victims' families on the steps of City Hall today.

Council members are following up on a February hearing into NYPD traffic safety protocol by introducing a package of legislation urging police to thoroughly investigate crashes that result in serious injury or death. The oversight hearing revealed that officers trained to investigate crashes abandon the scene unless victims are deemed likely to die, a threshold that overlooks thousands of life-altering injuries and leads to cases where prosecutions are compromised because officers allow crucial evidence to fade away. The legislation introduced today seeks to establish a multi-agency task force charged with overhauling crash investigation procedures, and to increase the pressure on NYPD to devote more resources to preventing traffic injuries and deaths.

"The crash investigation system of NYPD is fundamentally flawed," said Council Member Brad Lander, who introduced the task force legislation, known as the Crash Investigation Reform Act, together with Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca. "Forty percent of the time someone is killed, no one even gets a traffic ticket. In 4,000 serious injuries -- including brain injuries and spinal injuries -- we don't provide a serious investigation."

Many victims' relatives and friends have come forward this year to describe how police botched the investigations into the deaths of their loved ones. In the cases of Clara Heyworth and Stefanos Tsigrimanis, crucial evidence was lost after investigators abandoned the crash scene because they didn't think the victims would die. In the case of Mathieu Lefevre, police reportedly let blood evidence wash away in the rain, according to the family's attorney, Steve Vaccaro. Today Jake Deter, the son of Ray Deter, who was killed while bicycling on Canal Street last year, described some of the shortcomings in the NYPD's investigation into his father's death.

The 24-year-old driver had racked up seven moving violations in three years, Deter said, and in sworn testimony he admitted that he was probably speeding at the time of the crash. Yet the NYPD crash report gave no indication that police had measured skid marks or made any other attempt to gauge the driver's speed. In fact, it didn't refer to speeding as a potential contributing factor at all. The driver, who had marijuana, rolling papers, and Visine in his car, was cited for drug possession and nothing else.

"My dad is gone," said Deter. "None of this will bring him back, but by speaking here, we hope to make streets safer for everyone."

The push to reform NYPD's crash investigations and street safety procedures seems to have significant support from the City Council.

Vacca and Public Safety Committee Chair Peter Vallone, Jr. both lent their support to the legislative package today. Several of the resolutions were introduced by Council Member Steve Levin, and his fellow Brooklyn reps Tish James and Jumaane Williams were also on hand.

Central Brooklyn rep David Greenfield, not known for his street safety advocacy, made perhaps the most succinct and forceful case for change. "It's a perverse system," he said. "You can be a reckless driver, an unlicensed driver, a drunk driver, and mow someone over, and nothing's going to happen to you." The circumstances he described match the case of Clara Heyworth, who was killed by a drunk, unlicensed driver last summer.

Greenfield also joined other council members (though not Vallone, who pressed for "more resources") in saying that NYPD can devote more manpower to crash investigations and street safety without an infusion of funds. "This is the best-funded police department in the world," he said. "They could make an easy executive decision to put more resources on the ground." NYPD currently has just 19 officers assigned to the Accident Investigation Squad. Those are the only ones authorized to conduct crash investigations.

The package introduced today can't force NYPD to change how it handles investigations -- the City Charter gives the department broad leeway to set protocol and allocate resources -- but as James said, "NYPD responds to public pressure," and this legislation is designed to "raise awareness and consciousness to do the right thing." The bills and resolutions include:

    • The Crash Investigation Reform Act, which would establish a task force composed of representatives from NYPD, DOT, the Department of Health, district attorneys' offices, street safety advocates, and other relevant parties, charged with assessing current crash investigation practices and recommending reforms.
    • LS 3423, introduced by Steve Levin, which calls on NYPD to ensure that at least five officers at each precinct can investigate traffic crashes resulting in serious injury or death.
    • LS 3414, also introduced by Levin, which calls on NYPD to adhere to the state law that requires police investigations of all serious injury crashes.
    • LS 3418 and 3419, also introduced by Levin, which would compel police to publish traffic safety plans on the website for each precinct, and to publish data about violations issued to drivers who cause crashes.

NYPD's top officials could enact all of these reforms today, without prodding from the council, if they so choose. But Ray Kelly so far hasn't given any indication that he considers his department's failure to deter dangerous driving to be a problem. "We stood at 1 Police Plaza in February taking this to Ray Kelly," said Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White. "We received no answers."

Attorney Steve Vaccaro, who has helped many victims' families acquire NYPD crash reports and other documents that shed light on careless investigations, issued a direct plea to the police chief. "Commissioner Kelly, please listen to the council, listen to the people, listen to the victims' families. Stop ignoring your duty to investigate these crashes."

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