The Ongoing Shame of How the NYPD Downplays Road Violence to Shield Drivers

A sensor could have alerted the driver of this massive cement truck that the woman was right in front of it.
A sensor could have alerted the driver of this massive cement truck that the woman was right in front of it.

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She wasn’t a rogue “jaywalker.” She wasn’t “mid-block.” She was doing something that tens of thousands of New Yorkers do every day on roads that are poorly designed, striped and labeled.

And the truck driver who killed her wasn’t paying attention and failed to properly do his job.

Of course, none of that is in the initial police report on the death of 68-year-old Judith Wieder, who was run over and killed by a cement truck driver on Tuesday after buying produce on New Utrecht Avenue in Brooklyn.

The failure of the NYPD to provide relevant details is an ongoing problem that often leads to mistakes in many mainstream media accounts; news reporters often rely on the Police Department’s first draft of history, aka the “sheets” that the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information puts out in the moments after a fatal crash.

But in this case, there was video of Judith Wieder’s last steps on Earth. It’s worth watching if only to compare it to the police narrative that follows — and as a reminder to all reporters of the gaping holes in NYPD narratives.

Let’s review what happens, moment-by-moment:

  • Wieder steps off the curb about one car length from the traffic signal at 49th Street. The light is still red.
  • She is stepping off the curb at that spot because she has just left the 24-hour produce stand on New Utrecht between 49th and 50th streets. The entrance to that shop is between two staircases for the elevated subway.
  • When Wieder enters the roadway, the light is still red. The cement truck is stationary. The driver is likely not paying attention.
  • When the light turns green, Wieder is directly in front of the cement truck, whose driver accelerates into the woman, knocking her down and killing her.

Now, let’s review the police version of the events:

  • Wieder, cops said, was crossing “mid-block, outside the crosswalk.” This is, of course, true, but lacks context. It suggests that she ran into the street recklessly.
  • Wieder, cops said, “was struck by the truck as it traveled northbound on New Utrecht Avenue.” This is, of course, true, but it lacks context: The truck wasn’t making its way up New Utrecht with the light. The truck had been stopped and its driver proceeded through a green light without looking directly in front of his vehicle.

The most important detail, of course, is entirely left out of the police account: What was the driver looking at while Wieder started her slow walk across New Utrecht Avenue? If he was paying attention — if he had been looking out the front and side windows of his 60,000-pound truck — he would have clearly seen the lady and not run her over. (And we only know this because of the video; tens of thousands of crashes are never captured on video.)

We called the NYPD on Wednesday morning to find out whether cops had determined what the driver was doing while he was awaiting the red light, but police would not provide that information. We also asked if the driver was distracted by his phone, loud music or another passenger, but that information was also not provided. (Reminder: It never is.)

This screed may read like a minor complaint in a city with 250,000 crashes, 60,000 injuries and more than 200 deaths every year on the street, but the NYPD’s inability to provide full details of what actually happened on the street when a pedestrian or cyclist is killed by a driver is crucial — and not only because it sets in motion inaccurate coverage in the next day’s tabloids.

The ramifications of such poor reporting stymie the efforts of all participants in this system — transportation officials, cops, politicians, activists — to correct the problems.

“It’s no secret that the NYPD’s initial accounts often run counter to, or at least obfuscate, what actually transpires in fatal crashes,” said Transportation Alternatives spokesman Joe Cutrufo. “It’s a disgusting habit that benefits nobody but the driver, and they need to put a stop to it.”

A more cohesive narrative on the death of Judith Wieder would have pointed out that she had chosen to cross where she did because the crosswalk itself was inconvenient for her because of the design of that street. More details about what the driver was doing when he should have been paying attention to Wieder would allow street safety advocates to pressure the District Attorney to, at the very least, charge the driver for “failure to exercise due care.” And it would encourage politicians to consider new legislation that strictly requires truck drivers to keep their eyes on the road, even when stopped at a red light. Or maybe someone would propose a bill mandating proximity detectors for trucks that are similar to standard equipment on many of the newer cars.

It’s not the first time, of course, that bad NYPD narratives have undermined the movement for safe streets:

When cyclist Abdul Bashar was killed last year (also by a truck driver who did not see what was directly in front of his vehicle), the NYPD’s initial narrative said that Bashar was riding on the sidewalk. That initial error was quietly corrected months later, well after Bashar had been blamed for his own death.

The police narrative of last year’s death of cyclist Ada Martinez also blamed the victim, suggesting that she had ridden “directly” into the path of a van, even though she had a green light and was in a bike lane.

Other victim-blaming accounts include the NYPD’s account of the death of Kelly Hurley, Xellea SamontePedro Tepozteco, Phillip Simone, Yevgeny Meskin, and many others.

Most of these flaw narratives are informed entirely by testimony from only one person: the driver — an interested party whose main goal is to exonerate him or herself.

Gersh Kuntzman is the editor of Streetsblog. Sometimes he writes the “Cycle of Rage” column when he is particularly angry. They are archived here.