After Spate of Traffic Deaths, NYPD Surfaces Long Sought Reforms

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(Photo CC by Flickr user swruler9284)

It has been a grisly few weeks for traffic safety in New York City. At the end of last month, a six-year old boy was run over by a truck in Harlem on his walk to school. Days later, a young couple in Williamsburg, Brooklyn was killed in the back seat of a taxi cab destroyed by a speeding ex-con. And today, a car jumped the curb in Long Island City Queens, hitting five pedestrians, and killing a teenager.

It's an apt time to announce a plan, apparently long in the works, to reform how the NYPD handles traffic crashes. The changes were outlined in a letter to the City Council dated March 4th, a day after six-year old Amar Diarrassouba was buried, and while Julio Acevedo was still on loose, wanted for the hit and run that killed Raizy and Nathan Glauber and their child-to-be in Williamsburg.

The roots of the new NYPD policies date back at least a year, to the last time traffic safety was top news in the tabloids. Last February the City Council held a hearing on traffic safety in which NYPD brass were grilled for several hours on all manner of policy, procedures and statistics. Grieving parents slung angry accusations at the Department for failing to adequately investigate their childrens' deaths. 

So a year later, just as a second swelling of grief and anger was taking shape in the form of petitions circulating and reporters renewing requests for safety data, the NYPD sent a letter to to City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca that outlines a considerable expansion of police resources toward traffic safety, just about exactly what advocates had called for a year ago, and were likely to demand afresh.

The NYPD will expand the number of traffic cases it will closely examine, add new officers for enforcement and prevention of crashes, and implement new and additional training for officers who conduct collision investigations.

"Any of these on their own would have been a huge step forward for road safety," said Juan Martinez of Transportation Alternatives, one of the most vocal groups calling for the changes. "Taken together, it's a banner day."

In a symbolic move, the Department will also change the name of the unit that investigates traffic crashes from the Accident Investigation Squad to the Collision Investigation Squad, because, "in the past the term "accident" has given the inaccurate impression or connotation that there is no fault or liability," Police Commissioner Ray Kelly wrote in the letter.

The NYPD has consistently been criticized for not treating traffic collisions seriously enough in the eyes of safety advocates and family members of victims of crashes. About 250 people die in traffic crashes each year in New York City, almost as many as killed by guns. In most cases of traffic deaths, there is no criminality because of how traffic law is written. Enhanced investigations are often cited as necessary for establishing criminality or more frequently, essential for evidence for civil lawsuits brought by victims.

In the letter, dated March 4th, Kelly outlines the changes to the NYPD traffic crimes policies, many of them already quietly implemented. The most dramatic is a shift in which collisions will be closely investigated by the Accident Investigation Squad's specially trained detectives.

As we reported, before the new policies, the AIS had just 19 investigators and responded only to crashes where someone was killed or was deemed "likely to die" by a medical professional. That meant that many crashes resulting in serious non-fatal injury, such as the loss of a limb, were not handled by AIS, instead by local precincts who perform less rigorous investigations. The policy also meant that cases that resulted in deaths were sometimes not investigated immediately because the victim was not deemed "likely to die" at the scene. That's what happened in the cases of Clara Heyworth and Stefanos Tsigrimanis, neither of which resulted in criminal charges.

Tsigrimanis, a 29 year old musician, was struck while riding his bike. He sustained a severe head injury and was in a coma later that day, but was not deemed likely to die in the emergency room, so local precinct officers investigated, not the AIS who are specially-trained  in gathering evidence from a traffic crash crime scene -- such as how to reconstruct an accident based on skid marks or from the locations of vehicle debris. Tsigrimanis died three days after the crash, but no photos were taken of the scene under the less rigorous investigation, and by the time AIS did respond, after Tsigrimanis' death, it was too late to collect some evidence. No charges were filed against the driver.

That type of case will now get full AIS attention from the start under the new policies. Police will send the AIS (soon to be renamed the Collision Investigation Squad) to cases  where "an individual involved in a collision has sustained a critical injury" that "will be defined as a patient either receiving CPR, in respiratory arrest, or requiring or receiving life sustaining ventilator or circulatory support," according to the letter.

The patrol guide has already been "substantially revised" to reflect these changes, and to better guide officers who first arrive at a crash scene when to call notify AIS to come to investigate.

"Too many traffic collisions have been overlooked because the City hasn't collected the data it needs to hold people accountable and to intervene to prevent future crashes," said City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn who added, the NYPD is implementing reforms that "will keep our streets safer."

It is not clear exactly how many additional collisions this new policy will encompass or the additional workload it will mean for the AIS. NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for more information.

According to the the New York DMV there were 252 fatal crashes in NYC in 2011, the latest year on record. There were 2,942 "serious" injury crashes, which could be as minor as a broken limb. The new NYPD policy is more likely to mean hundreds of additional crashes will be closely investigated, not thousands more.

To handle the additional workload, the NYPD has already made staffing changes and is "in the process of increasing both the overall uniformed headcount of the Highway District as well as the number of investigators assigned to AIS," according to the letter.

Commissioner Kelly noted this policy change is only possible because the number of fatal crashes has decreased considerably over the past decade.

"I am pleased that the NYPD is taking this first step towards tackling the serious issue of traffic crashes," Council member Brad Lander said in a statement. Lander was the lead sponsor of the Crash Investigation Reform Act of 2012 that called for changes of this type of change. That bill called for a task force on traffic safety.