Park Slope’s top cop creates a Vision Zero ‘model’

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A cyclist in Park Slope, Brooklyn. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
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Last night, in a rare and perhaps unprecedented episode in the annals of police-community relations, a group of cyclists lavished praise on a police precinct commander.

On the fourth floor of the 78th Precinct, a cyclist and safe streets advocate named Adam White stood up to “commend the 78th Precinct” for its recent sting on drivers for failure to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks.

Deputy inspector Michael Ameri's precinct, he said, was “setting the standard for police precincts throughout New York City."

Not to be outdone, Paco Abraham, a co-founder of New York City’s first political action committee devoted to safe streets—the aptly named StreetsPAC—thanked Ameri for creating a protected bike lane in front of his precinct using police resources and then shoveling snow from that bike lane after the recent blizzard.

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Then he walked to the front of the room and gave Ameri a framed photograph of a Daily News article detailing the incident.

On Abraham’s heels came Ian Dutton, a cyclist the Brooklyn Paper has described as a “vigilante.” He gave Ameri some shortbread Italian finger cookies from Whole Foods.

“[I]t almost seemed like a love-in,” reflected Eric McClure, a Park Slope resident and another StreetsPAC co-founder in attendance, during an email exchange today.

In the aftermath of several well-publicized traffic deaths, Mayor Bill de Blasio and police commissioner Bill Bratton have promised to make New York City’s streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. They’ve endorsed a Swedish philosophy called Vision Zero that aims to eliminate traffic deaths with better engineering and enforcement. And they've established a multi-agency working group to that end.

But so far, they have yet to fully elucidate what that means at the precinct level, so commanders have been left to their own devices.

After three recent pedestrian deaths on the Upper West Side, one police precinct proceeded to so fervidly crack down on jaywalking that a non-English-speaking 84-year-old man ended up bloodied and arrested, his bewildered face adorning the tabloids.

In the neighboring 20th precinct, commander Michael Falcon on Monday said pedestrians were at fault, according to an account in DNAinfo.

"You see people, they’re not paying attention," he said. "They’re looking at their phones.”

"You see people with babies and there’s two seconds [on the countdown clock], and they’re going," he went on. "It’s mind-boggling the things that people do."

After Tuesday’s precinct council meeting, I asked Falcon's Park Slope counterpart what he thought about these recent jaywalking crackdowns.

Ameri leaned on a beat-up wooden podium and gave me a politic answer: “I ain't touching that one. I’m sorry.”

Others were less restrained.

“Enforcement should be targeted at cars, because it’s cars that injure and kill people,” said Park Slope councilman Brad Lander, one of the Council speaker's top advisors.

“I love Mike Ameri,” he added.

Several people I spoke with said that Ameri had, as far as they know, never instituted a jaywalking crackdown in Park Slope.

Instead, he’s adopted measures that both jibe with the dogma of the ascendant safe streets movement and that advocates say should serve as an example for Bratton and de Blasio moving forward.

“I hope that the partnership between the Park Slope community and the 78th Precinct under Deputy Inspector Ameri’s leadership can serve as a model for what the NYPD can do a lot more of under Vision Zero,” said Lander.

A spokesman for Bratton and a spokeswoman for de Blasio didn’t respond to requests for comment.

But there’s been an arc to Ameri’s relationship with Park Slope.

When Ameri, a compact, charismatic cop with a heavy New York accent, took over the precinct a couple of years back, his redrawn district encompassed the new Barclays Center and Atlantic Terminal Mall.

“For the first year here, I had to focus a lot of my resources and energy there to make sure that they’re up and running, make sure there’s no traffic and crime associated with that,” said Ameri last night.

But while he was busy dealing with the Video Music Awards and Nets games, concerns about street safety were brewing.

In 2012, a Park Slope cyclist and international airline pilot named Ian Dutton, infuriated by all of the police cars parked in the Bergen Street bike lane, spontaneously commandeered some abandoned Con Ed traffic barriers and deployed them along the bike lane in front of the precinct, where cops had parked their cars.

“And then I came back a couple hours later and I assumed they were all going to be gone,” he said last night.

Instead, the police cars were gone and the cones remained.

One day several weeks later, Dutton discovered that the cones had been replaced by sturdier, metal barricades, courtesy of Ameri.

“I never thought of going to the precinct,” said Dutton, a Transportation Alternatives member who on Tuesday was dressed all in black but for his glasses, which were green and black. “Ameri just did it on his own…It’s kind of the first time that without even begging and pleading that we got a real pat on the back, 'Hey you guys are ok.'”

At the same time, Ameri was being bombarded with requests for better traffic enforcement at meetings in the neighborhood.

“Tonight was a lot of accolades,” he said. “But the meetings in the past have been a little more contentious. A little more, ‘What are you doing about pedestrians? What are you doing about cyclists?’

Those concerns crystallized on October 8, when a 12-year-old named Samuel Cohen Eckstein got hit by a van on Prospect Park West and died.

The community responded by forming the Park Slope Street Safety Partnership, and Ameri attended the first meeting on December 4, with well over 200 people in attendance.

“To give you some perspective, I was the voice of reason for these very angry parents,” said Doug Gordon, another StreetsPAC co-founder at Tuesday's precinct council meeting. “‘Why aren’t you enforcing? Why aren’t you doing this?’ And to his credit, he stood there and he gave some very calm answers and nodded his head and listened.”

Last week, following the snow storm, he shoveled out that Bergen Street bike lane, prompting Bratton to tweet, "Proud of PD when it steps up like this. Thanks to DI Ameri and the #78Pct.", and prompting Dutton to bring Ameri those aforementioned cookies.

“Maybe share some cookies with the guys that are out there shoveling snow,” Dutton told the commander on Tuesday.

Ameri has also moved some personnel from desk jobs to vehicle and pedestrian enforcement, he said.

And last week, he initiated a traffic sting on drivers for failure to yield, leading renowned traffic engineer Sam Schwartz to laud the precinct in today’s Daily News

Ask him why he’s come to embrace street safety, and Ameri points to the the new administration's Vision Zero focus, the neighborhood’s low crime rate — which frees up resources that would otherwise have been devoted elsewhere — and to that “very vocal” community.

“And, obviously, my community’s well-versed in this type of stuff,” he said. “I have an advantage to other communities, where a lot of these people that reside here they know about this stuff and they’re able to educate me. And through communication and education, I’m able to learn about it and act accordingly.”

I asked him if he was himself a cyclist.

“No,” he said. "But I will be soon. I can assure you that.”