5:23 pm Jul. 25, 2012
Amid all the talk about gun control, City Council members today launched an effort to address violence of a more prosaic sort: car crashes, and what councilmembers described as the police department's inadequate methods of investigating them.
Every year, there are about 4,000 serious traffic injuries, according to the Department of Transportation. (That number includes people in vehicles and people who are injured by them.)
And yet, by the NYPD's own admission, its squad of specially trained accident scene investigators investigated a mere 304 of them in 2011.
That is, in part, because the squad numbers only 19.
But also, perhaps relatedly, the city's policy is to conduct full-on forensic investigations of traffic injuries only when a victim is dead or considered likely to die.
In cases of, say, broken necks or crushed legs, the police only have to fill out double-sided forms known as MV-104s.
"[I]f you lose your limbs, if you lose your legs, but you're still gonna live, all you get...is an MV-104, which is the same cursory crash report that you get when you have a broken tail light," said Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, which is backing the Council effort. "And there's nothing in that report that provides an evidentiary base for any kind of consequences for those victims."
Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., the chair of the Public Safety Committee, called the NYPD's traffic investigation practices "fatally flawed."
Councilman David Greenfield called them "perverse."
Councilman Stephen Levin said, "The NYPD is ignoring state law" by failing to properly investigate accidents that result in injury, but not serious death, as state law requires.
And so today, City Council members announced a new package of legislation designed to ameliorate the inadequacies of the NYPD's accident investigation practices: some are resolutions, which carry no legal weight, and three are bills that, though they do carry legal weight, are of fairly limited reach.
The resolutions, sponsored by Levin, recommend that the NYPD have five officers in every precinct equipped to investigate serious crashes, rather than just 19 citywide; and they call upon the city to follow state law, which mandates the investigation of crashes causing serious physical injury, in addition to death.
Separately, Levin introduced a bill requiring the police to keep records of traffic crash-related violations, sobriety tests and forensic investigations, and to retain those reports for five years.
A second bill would require the police department to publish traffic safety plans and the contact information for traffic safety officers on precinct websites.
Separately, Councilman Brad Lander and Councilman Jimmy Vacca, chair of the transportation committee, introduced the Crash Investigation Reform Act, which would create a task force to study the issue and recommend reforms.
That these measures are so limited in scope speaks to the Council's relative powerlessness in such matters.
According to Lander, the Council can compel mayoral agencies like the NYPD to better report information. The Council can also set up task forces.
But the City Charter gives the mayor, and his agencies, a lot of leeway as to how to comply with state law, and how to achieve public safety. And the mayor is in no way required to comply with the recommendations of task forces created by the City Council.
"I think all of us recognize our legislative limitations, at the same time we also recognize that NYPD responds to public pressure," said Brooklyn Councilman Letitia James.
Levin said the resolutions "do offer some moral clarity" on the issue."
Jake Stevens, the widower of Clara Heyworth, who was mowed down by a driver while crossing Vanderbilt Avenue last year and subsequently died of her substantial injuries, has since become an oustpoken critic of the city's traffic investigation practices.
Today, he said he was "relieved to see some progress."
But Stevens had only harsh words for the accident investigation practices of the NYPD, as they now stand.
"They did not come to the scene," he said. "They did not try and collect the video camera evidence, the skidmarks that would have shown the speed that the driver was going at. The driver was released that night and given his car back. He wasn't given a blood test. He wasn't given a properly calibrated breath test. Although he had failed a breath test that wasn't calibrated and wouldn't be admissable in court. No photographs of the scene were taken. No attempt was made to see how fast the car was going."
"There were criminal charges put up that are now all being dropped," he continued. "This unlicensed, drunk driver who killed my wife last year is gonna get away with a traffic violation. Not a misdemeanor, not a felony, a traffic violation for driving without a license. Not for killing Clara."
I asked Mayor Michael Bloomberg about the administration's traffic investigations at a recent press conference.
"You know, you can't please everybody miss," he snapped. "I'm sorry. Let's get to real questions. This is not a q-and-a for just, somebody who has something to say and get you some air time. I'm sorry, this is not what we're gonna do."
Today, his spokesman Marc LaVorgna offered a more substantive response.
"Many like to criticize, but traffic fatalities are at the lowest level in city history and we now have 30,000 fewer injury crashes per year—30,000 fewer per year—than we did a decade ago," said LaVorgna, in a statement. "Those results did not happen by accident—it’s due to the aggressive enforcement and safety work of the NYPD and the traffic engineering work the Department of Transportation. NYPD dedicates major resources to traffic safety and the incredible safety gains are undeniable."
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