INVESTIGATION: Whatever Happened to that Reckless Driver Who Totaled Brooklyn War Memorial?
12:01 AM EDT on March 18, 2022
The city's fight against the fastest drivers is just too slow.
That much is clear from a step-by-step review of city enforcement efforts against the driver of a Texas-plated car who slammed his BMW sedan into a war memorial in Park Slope in a high-speed crash on March 6 after racking up 95 camera-issued speeding tickets, 25 camera-issued red-light tickets and 29 parking tickets in the prior 13 months.
First, an update: The NYPD has not arrested anyone for the crash, and has not issued any updates, sticking only to the original narrative: That the early calm of that Sunday morning was shattered when the driver, speeding recklessly on Prospect Park West, lost control of the vehicle as it entered Bartel Pritchard Square, mounted the sidewalk and slammed into the "For Valor and Sacrifice" monument at the center of the circle, knocking over the multi-ton plinth.
Two people were on the scene when cops arrived: A woman who was taken to Lutheran Hospital, and a man who was "uncooperative" and declined medical assistance. Cops believe the driver fled as the car exploded and burned. We have asked the NYPD why it has not yet connected the driver to the crash, either through records or from questioning the injured woman, but police have only said that their investigation is "ongoing."
Streetsblog's investigation was only beginning.
A city at risk
The driver of the BMW that smashed into the monument has still not been publicly identified, but he is known to multiple agencies whose job it is to protect the public from such menaces.
- He is known to the Department of Transportation, having been caught on its speed- and red-light cameras 120 times between Jan. 14, 2021 and March 4, 2022 (mere hours before he totaled his car).
- He is known to the Department of Finance, which has billed this driver for more than $7,000 in fines from the above tickets. More than $5,000 of those tickets remain unpaid. Any car with more than $350 in unpaid fines that have been adjudicated through the hearing process is subject to being towed.
- He is known to the NYPD, whose traffic agents and uniformed officers ticketed the car multiple times, including eight times after the car was ruled in judgment and subject to towing in late November. Such agents do not have the ability to boot or tow a car themselves, nor do they know that the car they are ticketing is a "wanted" vehicle — a flaw in the system.
But that's not the only flaw. Camera-issued speeding or red-light tickets do not count against a driver's record in the state's Department of Motor Vehicles database, where just three camera-issued speeding tickets or four red-light tickets in 18 months would trigger the suspension of a driver's license. This driver met that threshold in 15 days in January, 2021. But to the state authorities, he's just another driver — one who was free to destroy a monument and terrorize his neighbors on March 6, 2022.
One fast Texan
The BMW racked up 85 speed camera violations and 19 red-light camera violations in the 12 months between Jan. 14, 2021 and Jan. 13, 2022 — far more than the threshold established by a 2020 city law that triggers a mandatory road safety class for any driver who accrues 15 speed-camera tickets or five red-light tickets in any 365-day period.
This BMW reached that threshold in just 92 days, racking up its 15th camera-issued speeding ticket on April 14, 2021. The car driver would have soon received a warning of the need to take the safety class except for one problem: The de Blasio administration, citing the Covid pandemic that began days after the so-called Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Program became law, didn't provide funding to implement its safety courses and towing for scofflaws who failed to take the course.
Funding was finally announced early in 2021, but the program didn't begin until late 2021, well after this particular driver would have been caught. The DOT did finally send a warning notice to this driver in early March, 2022, but he or she had not completed the course before rendering it moot because the car in question was totaled in the March 6 crash. (More flaws: When the driver of this car gets a new vehicle, with new plates, this enforcement effort will start from scratch, meaning he or she will have to endanger children in school zones 15 times before anyone in the city bureaucracy notices.)
Meanwhile, the Department of Finance was slow to get this vehicle declared "in judgment" in excess of $350 so the car could be towed. City records indicate that as of May 17, 2021, the driver had more than $350 in unpaid tickets — yet to this day, those tickets and thousands of dollars of other tickets are not "in judgment."
Finally, by late November, 2021, hearing officers declared the car "in judgment." More than two months later, on Feb. 10, the car was booted by the Sheriff and towed the next day.
For roughly three weeks, Brooklyn was safe from this mad Texan. But on March 2, the owner of the car paid $2,222.04 in overdue fines and extra fees, and his car was released. On that very day, the car was slapped with a camera-issued speeding ticket. The next day, the car got two more. And on Friday, March 4, at around 5:30 p.m., he or she got another — four camera-issued tickets in just two days after being released for thousands of dollars in unpaid traffic tickets.
Should we be surprised that less than 36 hours later, the driver was up to his old tricks, smashing the monument and totaling his car. Now it seems likely that he'll never pay the tickets he owes — the city no longer has a car to tow away for non-payment.
The wrong direction
Covid-19 took a great toll on the city's workforce, with state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli concluding in a February report that the total city staff dropped nearly 6 percent between June, 2020 and November, 2021.
The number of traffic enforcement agents dropped by 64 percent more than that, falling from 3,234 to 2,919, or down 9.7 percent overall. The NYPD said that staffing has returned to 3,162, or down just 2.2 percent at this point. Still, that shortfall in TEAs coincided with a deep drop in ticketing and towing.
And the number of full time employees in the sheriff's office dropped 13 full-time positions (5.5 percent of the total office staff) between June, 2020 and February, 2022, according to the state comptroller.
It's unclear if this staffing decrease played a role in the several-month process by which this driver was towed in mid-February after being rendered in judgment months earlier, but the agency told Streetsblog that the sheriff's office goes out on patrols in search of cars to tow only "2-3 times per week.” The agency declined to tell Streetsblog how many tow trucks it has and whether it needs more. (One other problem with towing away scofflaws: If a driver parks his car in a garage or private driveway, the city's license plate readers won't pick it up during those patrols.)
There's no question that lots of cars are towed; between February and August 2021, deputy sheriffs and city marshals impounded 16,798 vehicles, according to Finance spokesman Curtis Simmons. But Simmons declined to say how many vehicles were “in judgment” during that period, so it is unclear how many towable cars are not being towed.
Another problem is that so many traffic enforcement agents and police officers — at least six by our reckoning — ticketed this car even after it had been ruled in judgment, yet none of them acted to get the car towed away.
Council Member Bob Holden (D-Queens) wrote a bill in 2019 to make it easier for the police department to tow away illegally parked cars, but since being enacted in early 2020, it appears that the NYPD is merely ignoring it.
“I have been told that violation towing is very difficult to get for many precincts," Holden told Streetsblog. "The result is the same repeat offenders see the tickets merely as the cost of parking. It’s frustrating that the law I got passed isn’t being enforced, even in my own district. All precincts should have access to NYPD towing. They should also use rotation towing and get these scofflaws’ vehicles towed away."
The big loophole
What about the fact that this driver had a Texas plate — did that play a role in the city's failure to get this driver off the road?
The Department of Finance and the DOT say no — indeed, both agencies eventually got around to enforcing city laws against this reckless driver. But it is unclear if either agency's warning letters ever got to the driver, given that his car is registered to an unknown Texas address. The driver might simply have bailed out his car from the tow pound when he realized it had been towed; the DOT letter about the safety class may have never been delivered to the driver's actual home and may simply be sitting in a post box in San Antonio, Lubbock or El Paso.
Why is that even possible? The Department of Motor Vehicles in the Lone Star State has notoriously lax rules about allowing people to renew their Texas registrations from afar, without even requiring a car owner to return to the state for an annual inspection.
According to the Texas DMV, the BMW in question must have been in Texas at some point, because in order to get Texas plates, a car must get an initial inspection in Texas. After that, car owners can renew by mail or online with only the requirement that they self-certify "that their vehicle is out-of-state and is not able to be inspected," said DMV spokesman Adam Shaivitz. The vehicle must be inspected only "within three days of returning to Texas."
The agency told Streetsblog that 262,785 "Texas" cars were renewed online or by mail by people out-of-state — and the agency also confirmed that the driver who destroyed the monument after a reign of terror that included 120 camera-issued reckless driving violations did indeed renew his registration online from outside of Texas.
The Parks Department quickly repaired the "For Valor and Sacrifice" monument, which was installed in 1965 in Bartel Pritchard Square — a beloved public space named after two Brooklyn friends who both died in combat in France during World War I (then known merely as the Great War because no one could imagine there would be another one).
The agency declined to put a price tag on the repairs, saying they were done "in house."
But the agency added, "Should the driver be identified, we would look into filing a claim for damages." (Reminder: multiple agencies have already identified this driver, though none will release his name to the public or, apparently, to the Parks Department).
"This square and monument in particular are special because they tie us to the past and the sacrifices of others to preserve the freedoms we enjoy," said Brooklyn Borough Commissioner Martin Maher. "And as a veteran myself, I felt a strong responsibility to restore the honor of this memorial.”
As a taxpayer, Maher probably feels other emotions.
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