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TransAlt Leader: NYPD Must Stop Blaming Victims First

12:01 PM EDT on April 19, 2019

File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Ellen McDermott
Ellen McDermott
Ellen McDermott

There were two fatalities on our streets on Wednesday: a young boy in Far Rockaway, and an adult cyclist in Borough Park. Cameron Brown was 7, and Pedro Tepozteco was 26.

A quote from the NYPD in the Streetsblog coverage of Tepozteco’s death struck me hard: “As the box truck was passing the bicyclist, the bicyclist fell into the side of the truck and was struck by the passenger side rear tires,” police said in a statement. In that sentence, all of the cyclist’s acts are active, and all of the driver’s are passive: the truck was passing, the bicyclist fell, the tires struck him.

On April 20, 2016, almost exactly three years ago, James Gregg was killed by an 18-wheeler, which was being operated illegally on Sixth Avenue in Park Slope. The immediate report from NYPD similarly exonerated the driver, as reported by Streetsblog: "Police say the truck driver and Gregg were traveling the same direction on Sixth Avenue when Gregg 'collided into the rear tire of the tractor trailer.'”

The next day, the NYPD changed its story somewhat, but still blamed Gregg for his own death. "Yesterday, police floated another theory: that the truck created a 'wind force' that sucked the bicycle underneath, which an NYPD spokesperson said is 'normally what happens' in these cases," Gothamist reported.

Transportation Alternatives co–deputy director Marco Conner is quoted in that article, saying that, for that explanation to be plausible, the truck would have had to have been traveling at highway speeds, clearly illegal on Sixth Avenue. Steve Vaccaro, a lawyer who tweets under the handle @BicyclesOnly, is quoted, too.

"All too often in the crashes that I have looked at, there is very much a rush to judgment to say, 'The cyclist did something wrong' or 'the pedestrian did something wrong and this was the cause,' and not to look any further.… I have not seen the NYPD come out with a public announcement to the effect that this truck driver never should have been there. Why has that escaped them in their public statements? Don't they understand that is absolutely devastating to Mr. Gregg's survivors?"

The NYPD’s nearly automatic rush to exonerate the driver in the crash that killed Pedro Tepozteco is similarly devastating. It is technically against police procedure for officers to make these statements at the scene of a crash, but they do, persistently. Why isn’t the procedure followed? Victim-blaming by the police must stop.

Reporters who cover transportation in NYC are some of the best local journalists we have. ... I trust these people to report on traffic violence fairly, and not allow the NYPD narrative to be the dominant one. But often crashes are covered by crime reporters, who routinely include the NYPD's initial interpretation in stories. We need to reach them with Vaccaro's message.

We’ve had great success in recent years with changing the language to "crash" not "accident." But all too often, it seems that the NYPD's culture is simply impervious to change.

If you have been a victim of traffic violence, or know someone who has, know that there is support available, through Families for Safe Streets.

Ellen McDermott is co-deputy director of Transportation Alternatives.

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