NYPD Still Doesn’t Investigate All Fatal Traffic Crashes
In 2013, Ray Kelly made the only significant traffic safety policy change in his exceptionally long tenure as police commissioner. Kelly promised to increase the staffing of NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad — where, at the time, only 19 detectives were assigned to investigate crashes in a city with about 300 traffic deaths and 3,000 serious injuries every year. To ensure that more crashes received serious attention from NYPD, Kelly also said the department would retire a rule that limited CIS investigations to cases in which the victim was deemed “likely to die.”
Under the old rule, NYPD not only failed to investigate the vast majority of crashes resulting in serious injury, it also failed to investigate many fatal crashes. With police officers making spur-of-the-moment medical assessments about whether victims would die, the results were predictably inconsistent. In some cases, like the crashes that claimed the lives of Stefanos Tsigrimanis and Clara Heyworth, NYPD failed to promptly investigate because the victims were not initially deemed likely to die. Critical evidence could not be properly collected.
The new resources and the new rule were supposed to prevent fatal crashes from slipping through the cracks. Kelly issued a memo establishing a new standard, stating that officers would “respond when there has been a critical injury or when a Police Department duty captain believes the extent of injuries and/or unique circumstances of a collision warrant such action.”
But even after Kelly set the new rule in place, even in the purported Vision Zero era under Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor de Blasio, NYPD still doesn’t promptly investigate all fatal crashes.
WNYC’s Kate Hinds and Kat Aaron report that NYPD doesn’t announce about a quarter of traffic deaths — those missing fatalities end up in spreadsheet compilations but not in the press alerts the department sends out in the immediate aftermath of a fatal crash. One of the victims overlooked by NYPD’s public announcements was Douglas Matrullo, who was struck by a hit-and-run driver about three months ago and died at Bellevue eight hours after the collision. Hinds and Aaron report:
A spokesperson said that’s because the officers who responded to Matrullo’s crash didn’t think his injuries were serious enough to warrant calling in the Collision Investigation Squad, the specially-trained unit that gathers evidence at crash scenes.
A crash victim died and NYPD never investigated — this is exactly the scenario that retiring the “likely to die” rule was supposed to prevent.
NYPD reported making some personnel additions to CIS in the months after Kelly’s 2013 directive. As of September 2013, 22 trained investigators were assigned to CIS, up from 19 — far below the increase of 10 investigators that Kelly had promised. At the previous staffing levels, CIS investigated about 300 crashes per year, meaning that even with 10 additional investigators, the vast majority of the 3,000 serious injury crashes in the city would still not get a thorough look from NYPD.
Have Commissioner Bratton, Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan, and Highway Patrol chief Michael Ameri made any progress on staffing NYPD’s crash investigation unit so deadly drivers can be held accountable and New Yorkers can get a better understanding of how to prevent traffic deaths? We have an inquiry in with the department about the current size of CIS and the number of crashes investigated this year. In the meantime, the oversights reported by WNYC indicate that Vision Zero hasn’t changed how NYPD responds to serious crashes much at all.