The Council tries, and fails, to get the NYPD to talk about its reckless-driver policy

City street. (Azi Paybarah)
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A City Council hearing on traffic accidents and the police department’s inability to punish drivers who injure, but do not kill, pedestrians, swiftly turned into a bipartisan indictment of the opacity of the department itself.

While many New Yorkers get hurt by drivers, very few are prosecuted, or even fined.

According to James Vacca, who chairs the Council’s transportation committee, between 2002 and 2009, “more New Yorkers were killed by traffic than were murdered by guns. In fact, being struck by car is the most common cause of injury-related death among children younger than 14 years old.”

Since 2005, about 72,000 pedestrians, drivers, passengers and cyclists have been injured in car crashes. But thanks to a loophole in New York City law, unless a driver is proven to have been drunk or distracted, or the accident victim dies or is so seriously injured as to be categorized likely to die, the police don't usually do much of anything.

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In part, that’s because the NYPD’s expert squad of accident investigators, the kind of officers who can derive meaning from the width of skidmarks, numbers only 19.

Most of the police officers who actually work accident scenes are straight-up beat cops, and thanks to NYPD and traffic-court policy, beat cops can’t issue summonses for bad driving unless they witness the episode first-hand. Victims of such accidents, whether they're scraped or paralyzed, are left to pursue justice in civil courts.

In 2010, the state legislature passed two laws that sought, and failed, to empower the police to punish drivers who hurt pedestrians but don’t kill them: Hayley and Diego’s Law and Elle’s Law. Both gave police officers the ability to impose penalties on drivers for a failure to exercise due care in driving. But the police department, in keeping with its previous policy, declined to have officers issue those summonses unless the officers personally witnessed the accident. In 2011, only 46 summonses were issued under the new law.

“Even with those 46 summonses that are written, they are invariably dismissed by the traffic court, because the traffic-court judges believe that it’s inadequate because it wasn’t personally observed,” said Susan Petito, the NYPD's commissioner for intergovernmental affairs, at the Council hearing, which was held by the transportation and public safety committees.

Petito and her colleagues were less forthcoming on most other matters.

“How often do you charge an individual who’s speeding, who causes injury to another, how often do you charge them with felony reckless endangerment?” asked Vacca.

“Unfortunately, reckless endangerment is not segregated for record-keeping purposes in our arrest database, and so we can’t give you a specific number of reckless-endangerment charges connected with speeding or any other particular even connected with a vehicle,” responded Petito. “So unfortunately, that data’s not available.”

It continued in that vein for a good while longer.

“Are any of you aware personally of any reckless-endangerment charges brought as a result of one of these traffic injuries?” asked Vallone, who chairs the public safety committee.

The panel of NYPD personnel shook their heads.

When Councilman Stephen Levin asked whether the accident-investigation squad had been summoned to the scenes of three well-known traffic accidents in particular, Cassidy responded, “We can’t talk about individual cases.”

When Councilwoman Darlene Mealy asked whether the NYPD had any plans to deal with the increased traffic collisions that could occur once the city’s 10,000 new bike-share bikes come online next year, Cassidy said something was in the works, but declined to elaborate.

“We don’t have a paramilitary organization; you all do, and I respect that you have a paramilitary organization,” said Vincent Ignizio, a Staten Island Republican, with some exasperation. “But when you are having and conducting meetings with the D.O.T. and the NYPD in our district on how to build a better mousetrap, you have to include those that represent the community as well. That’s why we have a representative democracy. Otherwise, we turn over the keys to the kingdom and we say, 'Here you go, you can be the king,' and you don’t need us.”