BOMBSHELL: Council Seeks to Take Crash Investigation from NYPD to Increase Road Safety

The City Council moved aggressively to rein in the NYPD on Friday, focusing its legislative ire on bigoted cops and lax discipline — but also advancing a policy long-sought by street safety advocates: taking the police department out of crash investigation in favor of a new Department of Transportation unit.

The Council’s just released 12-part agenda includes the demise of the NYPD’s flawed Collision Investigation Squad and the creation of a new DOT team to investigate “all vehicle crashes involving a significant injury.” That mandate would raise the number of crash investigations from the current several hundred to several thousand, given how many crashes maim and kill every year in New York City.

The bill is sponsored by Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez, Brad Lander and Stephen Levin and Speaker Corey Johnson and will get its first hearing on Feb. 24. (Hearings for other parts of the package will begin as early as Feb. 8.)

“DOT is more than capable of taking on the responsibility for investigating serious vehicular crashes,” said Rodriguez, the chairman of the Council’s Transportation Committee. “By working together the DOT and the NYPD can increase their effectiveness in investigating and resolving vehicular crashes. This initiative will also help the DOT determine the best course of action to make the changes needed to ensure we continue decreasing the number of yearly crashes.”

The package of bills also includes a proposal by Council Member Adrienne Adams to require the NYPD to “issue a quarterly report on all traffic stops and vehicles stopped at roadblocks or checkpoints.”

Adams said in a statement that her goal was transparency.

“Without transparency and accountability, we cannot rebuild trust between the police and the communities they serve,” said Adams, who chairs the Public Safety Committee. “Encounters between drivers and the police are too often motivated by bias and end in tragedy. We need more transparency around traffic so we better understand who is being targeted for traffic enforcement.”

Such measures have long been sought by activists who fight for street safety in its broadest sense. And as bold as the Council’s proposals are, they fall short of full defunding the police involvement in traffic. Last year, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a Manhattan community board called on DOT to take over all of the NYPD’s traffic portfolio.

“NYPD has been an unreliable partner in pursuing the shared goals of calming the traffic and reducing traffic injuries and fatalities,” leaders of the board wrote to Mayor de Blasio, Johnson and other local elected officials, in informing them that the board’s executive committee had “voted to support the return of the Bureau of Transportation from the NYPD to DOT, where it could be better integrated and aligned with the city’s goals of calming vehicular traffic, achieving Vision Zero, and expanding the use of alternate modes of transportation.”

Around the same time, Transportation Alternatives called for the NYPD to lose the traffic enforcement power it got in 1996. More recently, state Attorney General Letitia James joined the call.

Removing the NYPD from crash investigations is a key item on reformers’ agenda. Last year, Streetsblog columnist Charles Komanoff called for having DOT take over crash investigations because the NYPD is a “bureaucratic, hidebound organization laden with costly layers of supervision and saturated, top to bottom, with a manifest bias against the most vulnerable road users (51 percent of cops live in the suburbs — more, if you count Staten Island — and an even larger majority of officers are believed to get to work in a car).”

He also criticized the agency’s “windshield ideology [and] standard-issue paramilitary antipathy to public engagement.”

The quality of CIS investigations have also repeatedly been questioned, most recently in Streetsblog’s investigation of shoddy CIS work after the death of teen cyclist Mario Valenzuela.

The largest problem is that the CIS investigates only hundreds of crashes a year, even though thousands cause serious injuries. And the squad’s findings do not inform DOT decision-making on solving the root cause of crashes that might stem from a poorly designed roadway.

Transportation Alternatives long called for the CIS to be expanded so that it could investigate more cases, but when the agency refused, the group called for DOT to take over its role so that crashes would be followed by “an engineering assessment of the street conditions that contributed to the crash and changes that could have prevented the crash or limited the severity of injuries.”

As such, Executive Director Danny Harris was pleased with the new legislation.

“The NYPD has failed to sufficiently investigate fatal traffic crashes, and change is long overdue,” he said. “This new legislation is a significant victory for our campaign to reimagine traffic enforcement and our push to remove investigations from the purview of NYPD alone. We strongly support this bill, and continue to urge a reallocation of resources from the NYPD to DOT to ensure our streets are built for safety. Physical redesigns are the best way to prevent crashes — and investigations — from occurring in the first place.”

Other items in the reform package include:

  • Calling on New York State to change the law so that the city police commissioner no longer has the final say over discipline cases.
  • Ending qualified immunity for police officers by creating “a new local civil right protecting New Yorkers against unreasonable searches and seizures, including the use of excessive force.”
  • Making new police commissioners subject to council approval.
  • Investigating police officers with a history of “bias, prejudice, intolerance or bigotry.” The bill would require the City Commission on Human Rights to investigate that employee’s work history and turn over its findings and recommendations to the NYPD for potential further action as well as to the city’s five District Attorneys.
  • Taking away the NYPD’s oversight of press passes and giving that power to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.
  • Creating a non-police emergency response for mental-health emergencies and creating procedures for dealing with school students in emotional distress.
  • Remove the NYPD from providing school safety agents after June, 2022. By August of this year, agents will no longer make arrests, carry weapons or restraints or wear NYPD uniforms. Safety agents would be retrained and overseen by the Department of Education. Their personal work histories would also be known so that rogue agents could be rooted out.

“This legislative package … is critical [to] redefine public safety and reduce the NYPD’s footprint,” said Johnson. “From mandating that the Council confirm incoming police commissioners to ensuring non-carceral interventions to community safety, this legislation will bring much-needed transparency and accountability to New Yorkers.”

It is unclear what the de Blasio administration will do with these proposals, given that the mayor has insisted that he is making reforms of his own (though his recent NYPD “disciplinary matrix” still gives the police commissioner the sole power over punishing rogue officers).

For now, a City Hall spokesman said only, “We look forward to reviewing all legislation and working in partnership with the Council in pursuit of our shared goal of longstanding police reform.”

And NYPD spokeswoman, Sergeant Jessica McRorie, also said, “We will review the legislation.”