An 'Insult to Broken Hearts': Families Denied Traffic Crash Reports

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Amy Cohen (at podium) at a recent Families for Safe Streets Rally on the steps of City Hall

It may seem odd but Hsi-Pei Liao keeps a video on his phone that shows the moment an SUV struck and killed his 3-year-old daughter Allison. The video was taken by a dashboard camera in a car that happened to be driving toward the intersection as the SUV hit Allison and her grandmother crossed a street.

Hsi-Pei said he watches it because it helps him understand his daughter's final moments — rather than conjure the nightmare himself. He has video because officers from the NYPD's Collision Investigation Squad obtained it and included it in their report on the collision. But getting the NYPD to turn it over to him and his wife Amy proved surprisingly difficult.

The NYPD is required by law to conduct an investigation into every fatal and serious traffic collision in New York City — there were 466 such investigations last year. But the results are kept from the public and the press, and even family members must file a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to see a collision report.

That's what Hsi-Pei and Amy did soon after Allison died. It took a few months, but the report arrived. Then the couple looked at it. "We're like, wait, the video's missing," Hsi-Pei said. "There are some pictures but they're all dark. You barely could see anything. And we had to submit another FOIL request for the rest of the evidence that's there, including the video."

They also turned for help to their councilman, Peter Koo. The councilman wrote a letter to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, asking him to urge the police to hand over the complete report. "I was surprised," Koo said of the request for help from the Liaos. "I thought the family involved in an accident can get a report. It's not for strangers or the news media but the immediate family."

Koo added in an email: "It only adds insult to their already broken hearts. These reports are not state secrets and should be made available to family members upon request."

That complaint was echoed last month at a rally on the steps of City Hall, where members of the advocacy group Families for Safe Streets had gathered.

"We still have not gotten the full traffic report," said Amy Cohen about a collision on October 8 in which a van struck and killed her 12-year-old son Sammy on Prospect Park West. Like the Liaos, Cohen and her husband have filed multiple requests for information. "We have a friend who's a lawyer who reached out on our behalf," she said. "He's had to file a FOIL request and an order to show cause. We're still waiting to find out exactly what happened."

Safety advocate Charles Komanoff, who was also at the rally, argued there's another problem with keeping the reports from the public sphere. "These reports contain a wealth of data that would enable the transportation department, the NYPD, city planners, community groups to design and create safer streets and a safer culture for pedestrians and cyclists and drivers," he said.

Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Mayor de Blasio, said the reason it takes a Freedom of Information Law request to see a report is because it's considered part of an active investigation. The NYPD wouldn't comment on the policy. Norvell added in an email that, "As part of implementing Vision Zero, a standing working group will continue to develop new ways of making more information available to the public by expanding the quantity and quality of information that gets released." 

Last month, de Blasio met to discuss his traffic safety plans with Amy Cohen and other members of Families for Safe Streets. Of that meeting, Cohen said, "He has made a commitment to all of us as family members that they will start to release the reports after the crashes, "which currently we do not receive."

A website for Mayor Bill de Blasio's Vision Zero initiative, which seeks to eliminate traffic fatalities in the city within ten years, says the administration will increase its sharing of "information and data sets." As of now, the website doesn't specify whether traffic collision reports will be part of that sharing.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Allison Liao's age. It was updated Nov. 6, 2015.