Reforming NYPD Crash Investigations: What’s Next?

New Yorkers were outraged to hear yesterday that there may be no criminal charges against cab driver Mohammed Himon, who plowed into a bicyclist and several pedestrians, horribly injuring a woman on the sidewalk. Although yesterday’s NYPD statement was not official, anonymous leaks to the effect that sober drivers who stay at the scene of a crash will face no criminal charges are almost always borne out  — unless the District Attorney conducts its own investigation.

Today brought welcome news that office of Manhattan DA Cy Vance is investigating the crash and has not ruled out charges. Based on the facts as reported to the public to date, a charge of first degree assault is supportable and should be vigorously pursued.

But even if the DA’s office secures a conviction of the driver, the fact remains that many hundreds of crashes involving sober, stay-at-scene drivers who recklessly cause serious injury or death to pedestrians and cyclists typically end with no serious consequences for the driver. These crashes go uninvestigated, under-investigated, and/or unprosecuted, due to the apparent presumption that harm done by a motorist is mere “accidental” negligence — even when there is clear evidence of multiple traffic violations, or road rage, at the root of the harm.

Despite the public outcry over the last two years for meaningful NYPD investigation and charging of non-drunk, stay-at-scene reckless drivers, it appears nothing has changed.  What has brought us to this point?

  • Demonstrations. Advocates for crash victims have staged numerous demonstrations at One Police Plaza and City Hall for improved NYPD crash investigations.
  • Extensive Reporting. Not only specialty or “niche” media sources but the largest mainstream media have reported extensively on the injustice and human toll of NYPD’s failure to properly investigate crashes causing serious injury death.
  • 2012 Public Hearing. Amidst the demonstrations and press coverage, the City Council public safety and transportation committees called a landmark hearing which revealed that NYPD woefully under-staffs its crash investigations and by policy prohibits its officers from issuing summonses for reckless driving causing injury unless actually witnessed by an officer.
  • Proposed Legislation. To address the shortcomings revealed at the public hearing, legislation at both the state and city level was proposed.  But the state legislation — an enhancement to Hayley and Diego’s Law that would have allowed police to summons unobserved reckless driving, didn’t make it out of committee, while the city council legislation was deemed moot in light of policy changes announced by NYPD, and never even received a hearing.
  • NYPD’s Policy Changes. In spring of this year, NYPD announced that it would rename its Accident Investigation Squad the Collision Investigation Squad, and expand the scope of the squad’s work to include investigation of all crashes resulting in “critical” injury (instead of limiting investigations of reckless but sober and stay-at-scene drivers to crashes involving actual or likely death, as NYPD had previously done).  While it appears that a broader range of crashes are in fact being investigated, many crashes resulting in serious injury still receive no  meaningful investigation.
  • Impact Litigation. In 2003, the state legislature passed a law (codified at Vehicle and Traffic Law section 603-a) requiring NYPD to investigate all crashes causing serious injury.  Then-mayor Giuliani opposed the legislation on behalf of the NYPD, claiming it would be too much work for police, but the legislation was passed over his objection. NYPD nonetheless continues to ignore the law, investigating only a subset of serious injury cases. A lawsuit brought by Jake Stevens as the representative of his deceased wife Clara Heyworth seeks to hold NYPD liable for violating the law in failing to investigate his wife’s death, and a decision on NYPD’s liability may come as early as this fall.

Why is NYPD so intractable to reform? Ask opponents of NYPD’s stop and frisk program, who have learned — even with the benefit of a City Council super-majority behind the Community Safety Act and of a watershed constitutional ruling from an influential federal judge — that New Yorkers still face an uphill battle in reforming an NYPD policy that is fundamentally, palpably wrong. Advocates for reform of NYPD crash investigations face a hurdle at least as high.

That is why the upcoming election on September 10 is so important for achieving street justice. Only with the firm and explicit support of the mayor and City Council can meaningful NYPD reform be achieved. Streetsblog readers in New York City must learn the candidates’ positions concerning reckless driving and crash investigations, and then vote in the candidates who have explicitly committed to reform. Otherwise, yesterday’s crash is just one more “accident.”

  • Jesse

    Even this bleak assessment seems unduly optimistic. Somehow the NYPD has become completely independent from other city agencies and appears to be beholden to no one. Their culture of contempt for the people they´re supposed to protect and serve, while absolutely appalling, remains unchecked. Can a new mayor fix this?

  • Have you written a post laying out the candidates’ positions on this issue? I’d like to know where they stand.

  • Anonymous

    The age old question once you let the dog off the leash can you put it back on the leash? I don’t really see any mayoral candidates willing to try less they get bitten.

  • Anonymous

    Campaign finance laws make that tricky to do in this forum…but the information no doubt is out there *somewhere*!

  • Anonymous

    If the NYPD could be bothered to enforce the speed limits, right-on-reds and aggressive drivling violations, then we’;d be in a situation where drivers drove under the speed limit, and sociopaths would have to weave around drivers driving udner the speed limit.

    There would be fewer of these crashes, and the NYPD would be able to justify a lightly staffed investigation team for them.

  • Joe Enoch

    Hopefully at least one of these mayoral panderers can take a stand against NYPD tactics which all but promote vehicular violence against anyone not in a vehicle

  • Anonymous

    What has brought us to this point?, you ask. Many things, especially the thrall in which most of the public and, hence, electeds have held the “authorities” in the wake of 9/11 and the attendant State of Perpetual Fear of Terrorists/Terrorism. But some of the blame should be laid at the feet of the professional advocates for declining / refusing to hold Mayor Bloomberg’s feet to the fire for worry of risking his unyielding support for bike infrastructure and other “livable streets” appurtenances. This clearly warrants discussion here.

    Steve, thanks for putting all of this history together so clearly. Though small nitpick re your last bullet point: the mayor in 2003 was Bloomberg, not Giuliani.

  • Joe R.

    I’m thinking we need to frame this problem differently. We’re mostly blaming drivers when in reality we should be looking at it the way OSHA looks at occupational hazards. If a piece of heavy machinery kills or injures, we’re not always quick to blame the operator except in cases of blatantly reckless operation. Instead, we accept that the operator may make a mistake because he/she is human, and change the design of the machine to reduce the consequences of those mistakes. Why aren’t we doing this for motor vehicles? We aren’t motor vehicles design to protect those on the outside as well as on the inside? And if this isn’t feasible, then perhaps we should consider doing what OSHA might in a similar situation. If a piece of machinery can’t be made safer, and the consequences of operational errors are often deadly, then that piece of machinery will no longer be allowed to be used when human beings are around. In the end, after studying the problem, we might indeed find that operating multi-ton motor vehicles in close proximity to pedestrians and cyclists has no effective remedy to prevent injuries, and therefore should no longer be allowed. You can of course engineer streets to minimize the consequences of mistakes, but in the end there might be no way to prevent significant numbers of people from getting injured or killed by motor vehicles. That in turn would imply operating motor vehicles only in places without vulnerable users.

    Yes, in this case the driver is 100% to blame, but the hard fact is many people die from motor vehicles even when the driver merely had something as minor as a brief moment of inattention.

  • Joe Enoch

    Ha. Your philosophy is practical but our legislators would would go the other direction and make it illegal for pedestrians and bicycles to be in close proximity to motor vehicles and prohibit walking on sidewalks and bicycling altogether to protect the precious vehicle infrastructure.

  • callmeL

    I think that it should be mandatory for all cops to experience riding bicycles on the streets of new york city as part of their training. I don’t know for sure, but figure there has to be training on how to drive a squad car or motorbike and protocol for what you can and can’t do with regards to them, so the same should be applied to bicycles A lot of cities across the US have bike cops (and I think that they would be a great create more visibility in key areas such as parks, the central park bikeways, universities, hospitals and schools. From a PR perspective, it would also be good for NYPD to have bike cops since there are so many negative stereotypes of cops that would rather just eat donuts and drink coffee.

  • Anonymous

    Just noticed my post makes no mention of the role of Transportation Alternatives in raising and pursuing this issue. As is evident from the stories at the links if you click them, TA was and is central to our effort to achieve meaningful reform of NYPD crash investigations.

  • Anonymous

    I think a new mayor, and even more importantly a new police commissioner, are necessary preconditions to meaningful reform, though no guarantee.

  • Anonymous

    Right you are Charlie–that was a typo. Giuliani’s opposition letter was 2001 not 2003. I have sent a copy of that letter to the Streetsblog Eds and ask that they upload and link to the post, as the arguments made against the NYPD investigating all serious crashes are of interest.

    Also agree that the authorities have bent over backwards to give the NYPD carte blanche since 9/11 and that this has exacerbated the problem of institutional/cultural resistance to change.

    As for the advocacy community not holding Mayor Bloomberg’s feet to the fire, I disagree. Transportation Alternatives had organized multiple “in your face” demonstrations at 1PP and City Hall raising this issue in a very forthright way, as linked in the post. TA also has sent letters essentially warning the city of direct liability for failure to design the roads safely based on non-installation of traffic calming measures such as protected bike paths in heavily biked corridors such as 6th Avenue. More of a “warning shot across the bow” than a “mutual back-scratching” approach.

  • Anonymous

    Actually it’s just easier to paste in Giuliani’s letter here:

    NEW YORK, N. Y. 10007
    October 15, 2001
    S.2221 – by Senator Johnson
    AN ACT to amend the vehicle and traffic law, in relation to accident reporting and directing the
    commissioner of motor vehicles to submit a report on such incidences and recommendations for passenger
    motor vehicle, commercial motor vehicle, motorcycle, bicycle and pedestrian accident prevention


    Hon. George E. Pataki
    Governor of the State of New York
    Executive Chamber
    Albany, New York 12224

    Dear Governor Pataki:

    The above-referenced bill is now before you for executive action. This legislation would require police departments to conduct a follow-up investigation of every motor vehicle accident resulting in death or serious physical injury, and to forward final investigative reports to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). By imposing a requirement of investigation in this manner, the bill creates an additional duty to conduct literally tens of thousands of accident investigations in New York City beyond what is currently mandated by the law and Police Department procedure.
    At the present time, the New York City Police Department (the Department) prepares a Police Accident Report after each
    motor vehicle accident involving injury, as directed by VTL section 603, and promptly forwards a copy of that report to the
    DMV. These reports are for the most part prepared by patrol personnel responding to the scene of the accident who conduct a preliminary investigation. It is submitted that most of the information contemplated by the proposed legislation is obtainable from these accident reports, at least in preliminary form, and could be analyzed by the DMV for the purposes articulated in the sponsor’s memorandum in support of the legislation.
    It is police policy to conduct a more detailed investigation when personal injury extends to death or to serious injury, where the victim is likely to die. Where those circumstances exist, the accident is investigated by a highly trained, 20-member unit of the Department’s Highway District, the Accident Investigation Squad. The Squad employs extensive technical investigative methods including photos, diagrams, scale measurements, crime scene procedures, and momentum equations, as well as more traditional techniques such as canvasses for witnesses. At the present time, this specialized unit investigates approximately 600
    cases a year. It would not be a prudent use of law enforcement resources to expand by statute Department policy determinations regarding which cases require a detailed investigation. Because the bill adds a new section 603-a to the VTL, it is assumed that the legislative intent is to require law enforcement agencies to conduct additional investigation beyond what is presently mandated by section 603. Absent an allegation of criminal conduct, a motor vehicle accident is essentially a civil matter. Police agencies must be able to decide where to focus their limited resources. Although the intent behind the bill is laudable, it is suggested that the bill’s purpose, to aid DMV in making public safety recommendations, could be accomplished using the information which that agency already receives.
    It should be noted that the sponsor’s memorandum states that the purpose of the bill is “to investigate the causes of motorcycle, bicycle, pedestrian, passenger and commercial motor vehicle accidents in order to increase safety and reduce accidents, injuries and fatalities.” The memorandum implies that the bill is needed because “there is no uniform requirement or procedure for an investigation to be conducted at the scene of a motorcycle, bicycle or pedestrian accident.” To the contrary, the provisions of section 603 apply to any motor vehicle accident in the State of New York in which someone is injured, whether the person injured is a pedestrian, bicyclist, or motorist. In addition, the language of the bill in fact also applies only to motor vehicle accidents. If the bill is truly predicated on a misreading of the VTL, then it should be disapproved as unnecessary and duplicative of existing law. Accordingly, it is urged that this bill be disapproved.
    Very truly yours,

  • Anonymous

    Absent an allegation of criminal conduct, a motor vehicle accident is essentially a civil matter.

    I know this is the standard point of view on these things, but it’s deeply angering to read it put out there so baldly.”Death and dismemberment on our streets? We wash our hands of it! I mean, after all, there are probably people out there smoking . . . marijuana!”


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