For Traffic Violence Victims, Cy Vance’s “Moneyball” Still a Field of Dreams

You won’t find much discussion of traffic violence in Chip Brown’s 5,500-word encomium to Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, published Wednesday by the New York Times Magazine. Other than noting that dismissals of drunk driving cases are down, according to Vance’s office, Brown doesn’t broach the subject at all.

Despite advances in other areas, there is no evidence that Vance has applied his lauded moon shot ethos to traffic crime. Photo: Brad Aaron
Despite advances in other areas, there is no evidence that Manhattan District Attorney Vance, now in his second term, has applied his moon shot ethos to traffic crime. Photo: Brad Aaron

To rein in gang violence and other street-level crime, Brown writes, the Vance team maintains close contact with NYPD, keeps a database of public and private surveillance cameras to track suspects, and even investigates unreported shootings through social media. “Their pole star wasn’t convictions but safety, a goal as readily attained by preventing crime as by prosecuting it,” writes Brown.

“We ask ourselves, Are we doing everything possible to reduce crime?” said Vance hire Chauncey Parker, whose job, according to Brown, is “dreaming up ideas, no matter how outlandish, that might reduce crime.”

It’s telling that while diagramming the gee-whiz mechanics behind Vance’s “intelligence-driven” approach to crime fighting, no one from the Vance camp highlights any data-centric techniques the DA’s office has applied to reducing traffic crashes in Manhattan, which still result in thousands of injuries and deaths per year.

Fortunately, a few paragraphs from another story published yesterday, Jill Abramson’s examination of the suffering and grief caused by reckless drivers, and how it is compounded by the failure of New York City law enforcers to seek justice for victims, fill the gap in Brown’s piece nicely.

Abramson cites the death of 9-year-old Cooper Stock, killed last January by a cab driver while in a crosswalk with his father, as one example of a deadly crash that resulted in no charges from Vance.

The most frequent complaint voiced by the families of dead pedestrians is the reluctance of the city’s D.A.s, especially Manhattan’s Cyrus Vance, to file criminal charges against drivers. “In the Cooper Stock case they could have at least suspended the driver’s license of the cab driver,” said attorney Matthew Dawes, “they just don’t have any cojones.”

This is surprising, because Vance made a campaign vow to abrogate the Rule of Two and to be more aggressive. But early in his tenure, his office had an embarrassing defeat in the case of the death of a 68-year-old woman who was killed by a driver while she was bicycling in Chelsea with her husband over the Fourth of July weekend in 2011.

Her name was Marilyn Dershowitz and she was the sister-in-law of famed law professor Alan Dershowitz. The driver, postal worker Ian Clement, had initially left the scene of the crash. He was acquitted by a jury in 2012.

Since then, there haven’t been any high-profile prosecutions by Vance in traffic death cases.

Abramson also quotes Michael Cheung, whose 90-year-old mother Sau Ying Lee was fatally struck in a Chinatown crosswalk in October. Cheung said the prosecutor he met with, ADA Erin LaFarge, “came up with all kinds of excuses to protect the criminal driver.”

Excepting instances when the motorist was drunk or left the scene, the number of vehicular crimes cases pursued by Vance is low enough that just about any of them would qualify as “high-profile.” This is probably why, when pressed on his failure to hold drivers who maim and kill accountable, Vance and his public relations staff tend to cite the same handful of cases.

Though it doesn’t mesh with Brown’s characterization of Vance as a trailblazing 21st century crime-buster, there is simply no evidence that traffic violence victims receive the same attention from him as do victims of other types of crime.

Jill Abramson is former executive editor of the Times. A traffic violence victim herself, she authored a moving story on her own experience, shortly before she left the Times organization last spring. There was hope that the NYT might start to give the issue the ink it deserves, as the Times of London has, but it wasn’t to be. Were she still at the helm, though, the magazine’s Vance profile almost certainly wouldn’t have a hole big enough to drive a truck through.

  • Jesse

    If the culture changes to the point that you can reliably count on a jury to view deadly driving as criminal rather than just an unavoidable tragedy, then people who drive will see it as their moral obligation to use care and there almost won’t be any of these cases to prosecute.

  • Jonathan R

    Thank you, Brad, for connecting these two articles as you did.

    It would be nice for the DA to focus on deaths and serious injuries, not just arcane forms of white-collar crime.

  • J

    Indeed, and newspapers can be a significant driver of cultural change. Sadly, the NYC press, including the NY Times, tends to perpetuate a cynical view of traffic safety where the fast movement of cars trumps everything else, and the lives lost are merely a cost of doing business. This is sad for a supposedly progressive city.

  • Mark Walker

    As someone who voted for Vance and pays for a Times digital subscription, I’m doubly disappointed. I won’t vote for Vance again. Dumping the Times would be harder, but never say never.

  • Cynically Yours

    Easiest way to reduce crime: call it accidents. Cy Vance should consider that approach in the realm of gang violence as well: “Accidental shooting, no criminality expected.”

  • qrt145

    I’d say that when it comes to traffic violence, Cy Vance’s Moneyball is more of a Fight Club. First rule: don’t talk about it. Second rule: don’t talk about it. Plus, both movies star Brad Pitt! 😉

  • Cyrus Vancus

    It’s almost as if you describe the job of someone – and elected official, perhaps – whose job it is to convince juries how to view crimes. Would such a person exist who could have an impact on how people perceive their moral responsibility to exercise their driving privileges with care? There’s no way to get to a place where ‘you can rely on a jury’ to convict a motorist for criminal negligence without PROSECUTING cases. The DA is a coward, and a lying politician.

  • Kevin Love

    Once upon a time, it was impossible to get a jury in the US south to convict a white man of racial violence.

    That changed.

  • Brad

    The ideological whining on this blog is tired. Some crashes are criminal, but most are accidents. It is tragic when people are hurt or killed on the roads, but just because it is upsetting does not make it criminal.

  • Thats because there are too many pedestrians getting killed with no consequences, not even a ticket when the wreck is totally the driver’s fault.

  • neroden

    Most crashes are, actually, criminal. Reckless negligence.

    I’ve only been in a car crash once in many years of driving; rear-ended by a tailgater. Everyone who has a license OUGHT to have a record this good.

    If you’ve been in any kind of significant car crash, you were probably guilty of reckless negligence — except in the very rare incidents of mechanical failure or sudden-onset health problems.

  • neroden

    More important would be to replace Vance. Vance, who coddles violent criminals, needs an opponent in the next election.

  • neroden

    Vance doesn’t prosecute major white-collar crimes either. Massive frauds committed against mortgagees and investors by banks HQed in Manhattan? He does nothing. Massive frontrunning operated on NYSE in Manhattan? He does nothing.

  • Brad

    There is no such thing as “reckless negligence.” You might be trying to refer to “criminal negligence,” of which one prong could be a legal definiton of “recklessness,” but a review of case law in this area would quickly lead you to understand that New York law only in extremely narrow circumstances recognizes car accidents as amounting to criminal negligence.

  • Brad Aaron

    The Cy Vance of 2009 would take issue with that.

  • ADN

    What is the “ideology” you take issue with, exactly?

    Seems to me that if there is any belief system behind these blog posts it is that reckless, negligent drivers who maim and kill people on New York City streets ought to face greater accountability and punishment and that the victims of this non-stop barrage of vehicular crimes deserve a lot more justice than they currently receive.

    Do you recognize your own deeply held ideology? Probably not. Like New York City’s utterly feckless District Attorneys, you appear to believe that motorists have the right to run over, injure and kill people so long as they are sober and they do not flee the scene of the crime. In your ideological view, any reckless, negligent, violent act done behind the wheel of a motor vehicle is merely an “accident” and not worthy of any official response from the justice system or government agents beyond hosing the blood and brain matter off the street and getting the traffic moving again.

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