4 Reforms Michael Ameri Must Make to NYPD Crash Investigations

The Daily News reported Wednesday that Deputy Inspector Michael Ameri, who made street safety a priority as commanding officer of Brooklyn’s 78th Precinct, was promoted to head up the NYPD Highway Patrol — putting him in charge of the Collision Investigation Squad.

Deputy Inspector Michael Ameri
NYPD Deputy Inspector Michael Ameri

As Streetsblog has reported in detail, NYPD crash investigation protocols are ripe for major reform. Compared to the number of serious crashes, the Collision Investigation Squad handles a relative handful of cases per year. CIS has a history of bungling investigations, which denies justice to victims. While CIS crash reports often do contain valuable information, NYPD won’t release them publicly. Even victims’ families have trouble obtaining crash reports from the department.

Given Ameri’s background, advocates are hopeful he will affect change citywide. “Park Slope’s loss and the 78th Precinct’s loss is the city-at-large’s gain,” Eric McClure of the Park Slope Street Safety Partnership told the Daily News. “He’s the right guy for the job to help make the streets a lot safer.” Right of Way also released a statement lauding Ameri’s promotion and outlining its recommendations for CIS.

There’s a lot Ameri can do at the Highway Patrol to help achieve Mayor de Blasio’s goals under Vision Zero. Below are four much-needed crash investigation reforms.

Make crash reports accessible. The results of NYPD crash investigations are kept hidden, even from victims’ loved ones. Wresting critical information from the department through freedom of information requests is prohibitively time-consuming. This is a burden to victims’ families, and more broadly, compromises efforts to make streets safer. “The Collision Investigation Squad’s meticulous reconstructions of driver actions leading to traffic crashes are a treasure trove of information that can improve traffic safety,” said Charles Komanoff, Right Of Way organizer and longtime street safety advocate, in today’s statement. “Yet none of it ever reaches the public, elected officials, advocates or health professionals.”

Stop blaming victims in the press. While NYPD shields CIS reports from the public, police tend to leak details about crashes that serve to blame the victim — details that are often proven to be false after the media has moved on. It’s not clear whether the leakers are CIS investigators, but as head of the Highway Patrol, Ameri can stamp out this behavior. Study after study reveals that motorists are culpable for most injury and fatal crashes. To change the mindset of investigators, the media, and the public — and to avoid causing additional harm to victims’ loved ones — NYPD must cease blaming victims for their own deaths and injuries before the facts are confirmed.

Treat victims’ loved ones with respect. People who are close to crash victims are in many cases shocked at the shabby treatment they receive at the hands of NYPD. Time after time they recount how they were stonewalled or ignored by crash investigators and precinct personnel. This is especially cruel in the face of unspeakable loss, it compounds their grief, and it’s completely unnecessary.

Investigate crashes. NYPD investigators did not visit the scene of the 2010 crash that killed Brooklyn cyclist Stefanos Tsigrimanis for 46 days, and ultimately concluded he ran a stop sign based on the recollections of two drivers, including the one who struck Tsigrimanis, though they admitted they did not see him until the moment of impact.

lawsuit filed by the husband of Clara Heyworth says NYPD called off its investigation an hour after the crash that killed her, without coming to the scene, because Heyworth was alive immediately after the collision. The suit says investigators ignored precinct officers who attempted to summon them. By the time police began the investigation several days later, crucial evidence was lost. These are but two of several instances where NYPD is known to have botched a crash investigation, letting deadly drivers off the hook and damaging victims’ families’ chances in civil court, which is often their only venue for seeking justice.

Faced with scant information and indifferent police, many times victims’ loved ones must enlist lawyers to uncover the facts about fatal crashes. As attorney Steve Vaccaro, who specializes in representing the families of crash victims, said last year: “If you’re in a crash, or your loved one is in a crash, the last thing you’re thinking about in the following 24 to 72 hours is gathering forensic evidence at the scene — skid marks, blood evidence, taking down names of witnesses, canvassing local businesses for video tape — that’s what we need police to do for the crash victim.”