After a Fatal Crash, NYPD’s Initial Version of Events Often Turns Out Wrong

The intersection where a U-Haul driver struck and killed a cyclist Sunday afternoon. Image: Google Maps

Yesterday, the 24-year-old driver of a U-Haul van struck and killed a 43-year-old cyclist at the Grand Concourse and 158th Street in the Bronx. Police investigators have made a preliminary determination that the van driver had the right of way, according to NYPD, but the agency has yet to reveal the basis for that conclusion.

NYPD’s public information office told Streetsblog the driver was traveling southbound on the Grand Concourse but did not know the cyclist’s direction of travel. Nor did police have information on the driver’s speed, saying the investigation is ongoing.

The preliminary findings of police are what get reported and broadcast to the public the day after someone is killed in traffic, but in several cases, early NYPD accounts blaming the victim of a deadly crash later turned out to be erroneous.

When 3-year-old Allison Liao was struck and killed by a turning SUV driver in 2013, the initial Daily News report cited anonymous police sources who said she was hit “after she broke free from her grandmother.” Video later showed that at the moment of the collision, Allison was holding her grandmother’s hand, walking with the signal in a marked crosswalk.

When Max Mendez, 6, was killed by an MTA tow truck driver in 2010, an anonymous NYPD source told the Post that “he jaywalked across an entrance ramp to the Triboro Bridge.” The “entrance ramp” was in fact a surface street people cross to reach a public pool, and later reports indicated that Max and his mother were actually struck on the sidewalk as the driver disembarked to respond to a call without looking in front of him.

An NYPD investigation of the crash that killed Rasha Shamoon in 2008 relied only on testimony from the 21-year-old driver and his passengers to conclude that she had run a red light on her bicycle. A civil trial revealed that at least seven people had called 911 after the crash and that the driver was speeding at the moment of impact. The jury found the driver, Abraham Soldaner, 95 percent responsible for killing Shamoon.

We don’t know why police believe the victim of yesterday’s crash did not have the right of way. Until we do, NYPD’s history of prematurely exonerating drivers who hit and kill people provides ample reason to be skeptical of the initial version of events.

  • This is something for readers to think about when they look at today’s Staten Island Advance….”Car that struck UPS driver apparently swerved to avoid pedestrian, police say”.

    Not that I’m denying this is what happened, but quite possibly some passerby told a police officer this, and it found it’s way to a reporter. Even the official investigation may not determine if this is the truth or not.

  • They ask the participants what happened.
    The driver has every incentive in the world to blame everyone but himself.
    The cyclist is dead and cant defend himself or blame others.
    Case closed.

  • Simon Phearson

    The most victim-blaming account came from the Daily News (surprise), and it revealed, I think, that the victim-blaming didn’t even come from anyone closely involved with the investigation. It seems like they called up some guy sitting at a desk and asked for his opinion.

  • NYPD’s public information office has access to records of crash investigations. They relay what investigators have determined, which tends to be very threadbare the day after a crash happens.

    As the Shamoon case illustrates, even investigators’ final crash report can have a ton of holes in it.

  • Reader

    Still waiting on the stenographers in the Daily News to issue a correction on the story about Ally Liao. Won’t hold my breath.

  • Simon Phearson

    *If* that’s the Daily News’ anonymous “police source.” I don’t think anyone else has relayed that detail, so if it’s the “public information office” that’s saying it, they’re not even telling people the same thing (or not all the reporters are relaying it).

  • AnoNYC

    If the GC had parking protected bicycle lanes, drivers would be more aware of bicyclists. The existing bicycle lanes are virtually invisible.

  • Joe R.

    This is why we need cameras running 24/7 at every intersection. Eyewitnesses can be wrong, and the driver often has an incentive to lie to avoid self-incrimination. Video on the other hand just shows the events as they actually occur, with no bias one way or the other.

  • red_greenlight1

    Great idea! So how much can you chip in for this very very expensive project?

  • red_greenlight1

    This is a city wide problem. The DOT paints the lanes and forgets about them. when you use 311 to remind them they claim they can’t repaint them for “efficiency reasons.”

  • Joe R.

    How much would it be? I’m guessing a few thousand per intersection at most. NYC has maybe 100,000 intersections? In the end then we’re talking a few hundred million to do the entire city, perhaps a billion if you count the data infrastructure. That’s chump change to the city, not much over $100 per resident. Also, it would easily save the city many times that by basically negating the need to have police investigate crashes. Just pull the video and you can see what happened, assign blame, etc.

    The same cameras could also be used as surveillance against terrorism, crime, etc. When people know they’re being watched they tend to behave better.

    The bottom line is we tried it the other way for what, 100 years? It doesn’t work. Cameras could actually have a negative cost once you count all the ways they’ll save money.

  • red_greenlight1

    Great so we’ll bill you for a billion! And you’re probably low balling the cameras.

    The police would still have to investigate crashes since you can’t conduct any court hearing by just showing a tape. You need to have paper document.

    The other way doesn’t work because it is broken but rather because the NYPD is broken.

  • Joe R.

    Why do you need court hearings or other BS? Pull the f-ing video and see what happened. If a driver ran a red light and hit a pedestrian, bingo, they’re guilty. You just might need the courts to figure out the penalty but you no longer need them to determine the facts. We don’t give a hearing now when someone is dinged by a red light or speed camera. We may well even have AI in a few years which can determine who caused a collision right after it happens, and then have the collision report ready before the police arrive.

    Oh, and the problem isn’t just the NYPD. The fundamental idea of having fallible humans determine facts when we can now automate the process is the problem. For example, would you rather have police decide if a driver who crashed was speeding or misapplied the pedals, or would you prefer they just pull the black box data and get that info? We do the latter all the time when a plane or train or ship crashes. We should be doing it for motor vehicles also.

    Great so we’ll bill you for a billion! And you’re probably low balling the cameras.

    Except you missed the part that they would likely save a ton of money just by making people behave better. The idea should be to prevent crashes more than to assign blame after one. I think cameras would be perfect for that. In fact, in the interests of better behavior I’m actually all for putting surveillance cameras in as many public places as possible.

  • red_greenlight1

    Since we’re doing away with the court system and the whole right to a fair trial should we have summary executions too?

  • Joe R.

    Right now under the current system the courts don’t determine the facts, either. The police do. The courts just decide how to act based on what the police say the facts were. If you think you can challenge the facts as the police lay them out in court try it. 99.999% of the time the judge will side with the police.

    By going with cameras we would be doing away with humans to determine findings of fact only. Once these facts are found out then it’s up to the courts to punish or not punish. If there are mitigating circumstances to why a driver went through a red light, for example, such as a medical condition which he/she wasn’t aware of previously, then they could offer them at a court hearing. There’s really no good reason why humans should be involved at the fact finding stage if it’s at all possible. Humans are subject to biases, bribery, emotions, etc. If the police got it right 100% of the time then I wouldn’t be asking for cameras. They don’t. Arguably, if a cyclist is involved they get it wrong close to 100% of the time.

    As far as fair trials go, I’m personally only for trials when the facts can’t be reliably determined, meaning there’s a chance the person might really not be guilty of whatever they’re being charged with. When there’s irrefutable evidence, particularly something like a video, the only purpose of the courts should be to determine punishment, not guilt. I’ve read of too many obviously guilty people getting off on technicalities. Look at the case of Allison Liao for example. Anyone with a set of eyes would view the video and take it as fact that the driver was at fault. It shouldn’t have even been allowed to challenge that part of it. The only thing the court should have done was to set punishment.

    If we want our streets to be safe, then ideally this should mean every time one person causes harm to another they’re invariably caught and punished. Nobody gets off because the police are bribed, or give professional courtesy, or maybe the courts or jurors let the peson off thinking it could be them next time.

  • AnoNYC

    This is already happening, albeit slowly.

    There’s also already a ton of cameras rolling across the city, the key is accessing that private data. I’m sure this collision was captured, there’s a municipal building at that location.

  • Miles Bader

    In any case, such a system can obviously be built incrementally, and would start to yield significant benefits, way, way, before reaching 100% coverage. Just start putting in cameras now, in order by how busy/dangerous each intersection is. The price should actually go down over time, as technology improves and the city gains experience.

  • vnm

    And this stretch of the Grand Concourse doesn’t even have bike lanes. The begin/end north of 161st Street.

  • vnm

    I’m going to do some armchair police work here. Fact: The speed limit on the Grand Concourse is 25 mph. It was one of the city’s first arterial slow zones. Fact: A witness told the Daily News: “He must have been thrown from it. He was lying at least 20 feet from his bike.” Could excessive speed on the part of the U-Haul driver have played a role here?

  • Anyone remember Mattheu Lefevre? He was supposedly running a red light when he got hit by a truck that would have had to been running the same red light go hit him… NYPD sucks.

  • Some Asshole

    I bet the victim also had a gun and was carrying several ounces of pot, while being wanted for a few summonses.

  • This is very pertinent to this weeks collision in Staten Island that took UPS driver Tom Ryan’s leg off. The NY Post published a direct quote from a named witness – ” A guy was crossing against the traffic light on Hylan Boulevard and Adams Avenue when a black Toyota Camry with a male teen driver tried to avoid him in street and slammed into back of UPS truck, crushing his legs,” he recalled”. However, there is no traffic light at Hylan and Adams. So the account may be suspect.

  • WalkingNPR

    Exactly. They posit the driver was avoiding a pedestrian, but what they ignore was that that implies something about the way he was driving rendered him unable to safely maneuver due to an unexpected object (person) in the road. So avoiding a pedestrian or not, he’s still driving unsafely.