How NYPD’s Opaque Crash Investigations Spoil Its Street Safety Message

Last month, the Upper East Side’s 19th Precinct devoted two full pages to traffic safety in its inaugural monthly newsletter. In an echo of Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who claimed at the initial Vision Zero press conference that 73 percent of crashes injuring pedestrians are the victim’s fault, it featured an eyebrow-raising statistic that blames four of the five Upper East Side pedestrian fatalities in 2013 on the dead victims. But that’s a misleading way to characterize the cause of most pedestrian deaths, and given NYPD’s track record of rushing to blame victims in its crash investigations, it may not even be an accurate depiction of these five Upper East Side deaths.

Renee Thompson and Kenneth McMilleon were two of five pedestrians killed on the Upper East Side last year. Neither . Top: Post Bottom: Daily News
Renee Thompson and Kenneth McMilleon were two of five pedestrians killed on the Upper East Side last year. Top: NY Post; Bottom: Daily News

In a section written by Capt. Oliver Pufolkes [PDF], the precinct’s January newsletter (brought to our attention by a commenter, emphasis added) reads:

Using our data-driven performance management system (Traffic Stat) there are lessons we have gleaned from looking at data for the past calendar year (2013). Last year 59% of pedestrians that were involved in traffic collisions were 61 years of age or older, and 59% of the contributing factor was either driver inattention or drivers’ failure to yield right of way to pedestrians — typically during a turn. Pedestrian error accounted for 10% of those collisions. A thorough investigation by our Department’s Highway Collision Scene Unit revealed that 80% of the pedestrian fatalities (4 out of 5) that occurred last year were due to pedestrian error.

The precinct clarified that each statistic the piece references covers only the pedestrian crashes and fatalities in the precinct, which lies east of Central Park between 59th and 96th Streets.

There’s something curious about these statistics: 10 percent of all Upper East Side pedestrian collisions were caused by pedestrian error, but in the five cases where the victim died, “pedestrian error” jumped to 80 percent. While this is a small sample, it seems that Upper East Side pedestrians who did not survive collisions and could not tell their side of the story were far more likely to be blamed for causing the crash than pedestrians who survived.

The precinct’s stats echo a claim Bratton made last month at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero announcement. Speaking about pedestrian crashes citywide, the police commissioner said that “pedestrian error contributed to 73 percent of collisions, and 66 percent are directly related to the actions of pedestrians.” NYPD never offered an explanation for this claim, but the 19th Precinct did cite a source for its numbers: the “Highway Collision Scene Unit.” Presumably this is a reference to the Collision Investigation Squad, the unit within NYPD’s Highway Division responsible for investigations of traffic fatalities and critical injuries.

In most cases, CIS investigations involve victims who don’t live to tell police their account. The motorists who do the killing, however, can tell their story, and CIS crash reports often rely heavily on what drivers and their passengers tell investigators. As Streetsblog’s Brad Aaron explained last month:

This is the unit that, for example, blamed cyclists Rasha Shamoon and Stefanos Tsigrimanis for their own deaths based largely on the word of the drivers who killed them. Shamoon was vindicated by a civil jury, which found the motorist almost completely culpable for the collision. Investigators didn’t visit the Tsigrimanis crash scene for 46 days, but still concluded he blew a stop sign based on threadbare, inconsistent accounts. The crash report relied on the recollections of two drivers, including the one who struck Tsigrimanis, even though they admitted they did not see him until the moment of impact.

Now, the cluster of fatalities in the 19th Precinct could be an outlier, and it’s entirely possible that four of these deaths involved pedestrians who made mistakes. But what we do know about these five fatalities makes it difficult to verify NYPD’s claim. Crash reports are notoriously opaque, and even victims’ families have trouble obtaining them. In the absence of those reports, there are media accounts and police department information releases on four of these deaths; Streetsblog was unable to track down any information about the fifth crash, not even a date or location.

Update: Charles Komanoff has identified the fifth pedestrian as 90-year-old Belle Moser, who was crossing East End Avenue last July when she was killed by a turning driver. Reports do not indicate that Moser was violating any traffic rules.

In two of the four cases, NYPD says the pedestrian was walking against a traffic signal. Last November, 42-year-old Buddhi Thapa was crossing Second Avenue near 89th Street when, police and the driver who hit him say, he slipped while crossing against the signal before the driver killed him. In September, 16-year-old Renee Thompson was crossing Third Avenue at 60th Street when she was killed by a turning truck driver. The driver had a green turn signal while Thompson was crossing against the light, police say. The truck driver who killed Thompson was ticketed for failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk, failure to exercise due care and operating an unregistered vehicle, but was not arrested.

Available information on the other two cases does not include evidence that the victims did anything wrong. In January, 85-year-old Richard Griffin was crossing York Avenue at 69th Street when he was struck by a driver heading north on the avenue. NYPD did not indicate that Griffin was violating any traffic rules. In April, 67-year-old Kenneth McMilleon was killed by a hit-and-run driver at 78th Street and Lexington Avenue. McMilleon, who worked for a nearby block association, was killed with a broom in his hand; his family says he was sweeping the gutter at the time he was killed.

Because details about NYPD’s crash investigations are opaque, it’s hard to verify statistics originating from CIS. NYPD has not responded to inquiries about how it assigned culpability to four of the five pedestrians who were killed in traffic on the Upper East Side last year.

The larger point is that the precinct shouldn’t rely on such a small sample size when much more robust research reached very different conclusions. A major report by NYC DOT in 2010, based on 7,000 pedestrian crash records, found that driver behavior was the primary factor in 78.5 percent of serious pedestrian injuries and fatalities. NYPD’s own monthly crash reports cite pedestrian and cyclist “error/confusion” as a contributing factor only in about 7 or 8 percent of pedestrian and cyclist injuries last year. This number is in line with the 10 percent figure the 19th Precinct cites for all pedestrian crashes.

Meanwhile, neighborhood leaders are relying on the precinct’s very small data sample. “I don’t doubt that they’re true,” said Nick Viest, who serves as president of the 19th Precinct community council and chair of Community Board 8, of the fatality statistics. “These tend to be jaywalking type situations. There’s concern about pedestrians walking out between parked cars.”

The good news is that the precinct’s message about pedestrian deaths may not translate into handing out tickets for jaywalking. Like many precincts, the 19th is set to launch a traffic safety enforcement blitz this week. While pedestrian education is a major component, Viest said the precinct had not expressed much interest in issuing jaywalking tickets. (A jaywalking ticket blitz early last month on the Upper West Side ended with a bloodied senior and a barrage of bad press.)

“They’re going to be looking at failure to yield violations of drivers. Those are very serious,” Viest said. “There’s concerns about drivers driving at high speeds, driving unsafely.”

The precinct’s newsletter says that taxi drivers make up about 40 percent of vehicle operators involved in crashes in the neighborhood. “Our plan will include even more collaboration with TLC to enforce road infractions by cab drivers,” it says.

The veracity of its statistics aside, Viest said the department’s new focus on traffic enforcement is palpable. “What’s important is that they’re certainly focused on it. It’s important to them. I’ve seen this attention from the command officers…at the precinct level and it’s at the borough command level,” he said. “This is a priority for the precinct and for the city as a whole.”

A new focus on motorists who endanger pedestrians would be a welcome improvement. CB 8 has the third-highest concentration of car crashes injuring pedestrians and cyclists in the city, but three years ago, the precinct targeted cyclists so aggressively that nearly half of all moving violations it issued were handed out to bike riders. At the same time, residents complained that laws on the books weren’t being used against truck drivers who killed pedestrians in the neighborhood.

Police seem to be making progress when it comes to enforcement, but the department’s crash investigations and public street safety messages need to catch up.