Reforming NYPD Crash Investigations: What’s Next?

New Yorkers were outraged to hear yesterday that there may be no criminal charges against cab driver Mohammed Himon, who plowed into a bicyclist and several pedestrians, horribly injuring a woman on the sidewalk. Although yesterday’s NYPD statement was not official, anonymous leaks to the effect that sober drivers who stay at the scene of a crash will face no criminal charges are almost always borne out  — unless the District Attorney conducts its own investigation.

Today brought welcome news that office of Manhattan DA Cy Vance is investigating the crash and has not ruled out charges. Based on the facts as reported to the public to date, a charge of first degree assault is supportable and should be vigorously pursued.

But even if the DA’s office secures a conviction of the driver, the fact remains that many hundreds of crashes involving sober, stay-at-scene drivers who recklessly cause serious injury or death to pedestrians and cyclists typically end with no serious consequences for the driver. These crashes go uninvestigated, under-investigated, and/or unprosecuted, due to the apparent presumption that harm done by a motorist is mere “accidental” negligence — even when there is clear evidence of multiple traffic violations, or road rage, at the root of the harm.

Despite the public outcry over the last two years for meaningful NYPD investigation and charging of non-drunk, stay-at-scene reckless drivers, it appears nothing has changed.  What has brought us to this point?

  • Demonstrations. Advocates for crash victims have staged numerous demonstrations at One Police Plaza and City Hall for improved NYPD crash investigations.
  • Extensive Reporting. Not only specialty or “niche” media sources but the largest mainstream media have reported extensively on the injustice and human toll of NYPD’s failure to properly investigate crashes causing serious injury death.
  • 2012 Public Hearing. Amidst the demonstrations and press coverage, the City Council public safety and transportation committees called a landmark hearing which revealed that NYPD woefully under-staffs its crash investigations and by policy prohibits its officers from issuing summonses for reckless driving causing injury unless actually witnessed by an officer.
  • Proposed Legislation. To address the shortcomings revealed at the public hearing, legislation at both the state and city level was proposed.  But the state legislation — an enhancement to Hayley and Diego’s Law that would have allowed police to summons unobserved reckless driving, didn’t make it out of committee, while the city council legislation was deemed moot in light of policy changes announced by NYPD, and never even received a hearing.
  • NYPD’s Policy Changes. In spring of this year, NYPD announced that it would rename its Accident Investigation Squad the Collision Investigation Squad, and expand the scope of the squad’s work to include investigation of all crashes resulting in “critical” injury (instead of limiting investigations of reckless but sober and stay-at-scene drivers to crashes involving actual or likely death, as NYPD had previously done).  While it appears that a broader range of crashes are in fact being investigated, many crashes resulting in serious injury still receive no  meaningful investigation.
  • Impact Litigation. In 2003, the state legislature passed a law (codified at Vehicle and Traffic Law section 603-a) requiring NYPD to investigate all crashes causing serious injury.  Then-mayor Giuliani opposed the legislation on behalf of the NYPD, claiming it would be too much work for police, but the legislation was passed over his objection. NYPD nonetheless continues to ignore the law, investigating only a subset of serious injury cases. A lawsuit brought by Jake Stevens as the representative of his deceased wife Clara Heyworth seeks to hold NYPD liable for violating the law in failing to investigate his wife’s death, and a decision on NYPD’s liability may come as early as this fall.

Why is NYPD so intractable to reform? Ask opponents of NYPD’s stop and frisk program, who have learned — even with the benefit of a City Council super-majority behind the Community Safety Act and of a watershed constitutional ruling from an influential federal judge — that New Yorkers still face an uphill battle in reforming an NYPD policy that is fundamentally, palpably wrong. Advocates for reform of NYPD crash investigations face a hurdle at least as high.

That is why the upcoming election on September 10 is so important for achieving street justice. Only with the firm and explicit support of the mayor and City Council can meaningful NYPD reform be achieved. Streetsblog readers in New York City must learn the candidates’ positions concerning reckless driving and crash investigations, and then vote in the candidates who have explicitly committed to reform. Otherwise, yesterday’s crash is just one more “accident.”