NYPD Defends Role in Investigating Traffic Deaths

NYPD officials at a City Council oversight hearing (photo by Kate Hinds)

In two and a half hours of sometimes heated testimony, NYPD brass defended the department's record investigating bike and pedestrian deaths before the New York City Council.

"We have utilized the resources at our disposal...to drive accidents down in the city," said John Cassidy, chief of the NYPD's transportation department.

"There doesn't seem to be any discussion of that at the Council hearing at all," he said. "It seems the fact that accidents are down, injury accidents are down, injuries are down -- those are done by utilizing the patrol force that we have. So it's not that we are not doing anything out there -- I think it's quite the contrary. We are doing a lot with a lot less."

A number of recent deaths -- like Brooklyn cyclist Mathieu LeFevre, who was hit by a truck last October in Brooklyn, and 12-year old Dashane Santana, who was struck by a minivan on the Lower East Side in January -- have caused the council to question how vigorously the NYPD enforces laws in these kinds of cases.

Teresa Pedroza, Santana's grandmother, said: "My granddaughter's gone because it's just that easy for dangerous drivers to end a life on our streets."

Added Erika LeFevre, mother of Mathieu LeFevre: "The only person the NYPD showed courtesy, professionalism and respect towards was the driver who ran over my son," she said, referencing the slogan painted on the side of patrol cars.

"What actually happens when a pedestrian is struck and killed by a car?" City Council member Jimmy Vacca -- who chairs the transportation committee  -- asked at the opening of the oversight hearing. "Anecdotal evidence suggests that unless the driver is drunk or distracted, in the overwhelming majority of cases involving fatalities or serious injury, there are no charges filed at all."

Cassidy said in 2011, the NYPD issued over a million summonses to drivers for moving violations, as well as 10,415 criminal court summonses to truck operators. He added that last year the department issued 13,743 moving violations to bicyclists and 34,813 criminal court summonses to bicyclists.

But this didn't satisfy the council members.  Council member Peter Vallone asked the police brass:  "Are any of you aware, personally, of any reckless endangerment charges brought as a result of one of these traffic injuries?"  After a pause, Cassidy responded: "No, sir."

Recent legislation (known colloquially as Hayley and Diego’s Law) amended section 1146 of the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law to establish careless driving as a more serious offense. But according to Susan Petito, an attorney for the NYPD, the only officers who write 1146 violations are members of the NYPD's Accident Investigation Squad. The AIS is only called out to investigate if the victim is either dead or has suffered a life-threatening injury.

The AIS, which covers the entire city,  has 19 detectives, one lieutenant, and three sergeants.

"Even with those (1146) summonses that are written," Petito said, "they are invariably dismissed by traffic court, because traffic court judges believe that it's inadequate because it wasn't personally observed."

"It's really unacceptable," said Council Member Brad Lander, who wanted to know why more patrol officers couldn't be authorized to write 1146 violations.

The council wasn't the only frustrated party in the room. "You know, we're well aware of the catastrophic nature of what we are discussing. We realize these are not just numbers on a piece of paper," said Cassidy at one point.

Other city council members complained about what they perceived to be a the NYPD's lack of transparency. At one point Vacca wanted to know how many drivers were charged for criminally bad driving. "Unfortunately, reckless endangerment is not segregated for record keeping purposes in our arrest database," said Petito. "So we can't give you a specific number of reckless endangerment charges connected with speeding ... connected with a vehicle. Unfortunately that data's not available."

"Why is it so hard to get information from the police department?" asked council member Jessica Lappin, who has worked to try to get the NYPD to make more data available to the public. "Why did Mathieu LeFevre's family have to file a FOIL request about their son's death? That's literally adding insult to injury."

Lappin called the NYPD's approach to releasing data "irritating" and "infuriating." "While putting up a PDF may comply with the law, it doesn't comply with our goal. It's information we're entitled to."

After the hearing, Peter Vallone said the council is committed to giving the NYPD the tools they need to go after bad drivers. "They are not paying enough attention to reckless drivers, and I think that's clear from the testimony of all the victims who were here today."