Council Grills NYPD About Cycling Death

The police department is called on the carpet for its dismissive approach to bike deaths

As a mayor preoccupied with his legacy, Mike Bloomberg takes pride in the sweeping transformation of New York into a bicycle-friendly metropolis under his Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

But the mayor's unswerving support to Sadik-Khan's vision is running into a head-on collision with one of his less admirable loyalties: to the secretive, unresponsive New York City Police Department of his chief, Ray Kelly.

Cycling advocates have said for years that the NYPD doesn't take the safety of bicyclists seriously—that when a bicyclist is killed or injured by a reckless motorist, the police perform a cursory investigation at best, are quick to blame the victim, and almost never charge the motorist with a crime.

Those complaints have only been amplified recently by revelations of the police department's false statements and bungled investigation in the case of Mathieu Lefevre, a 30-year-old Canadian artist killed on his bicycle in East Williamsburg last October.

Shortly afterward, an officer told the press that Lefevre was to blame because he ran a red light. The driver wasn't charged. "There's no criminality," an NYPD spokesman was quoted as saying. "That's why they call it an accident."

But Lefevre's family hired a lawyer, Steve Vaccaro, and started asking questions. Months after Lefevre's death, Vaccaro had to virtually drag the department by its ear to recover security-camera footage from a nearby warehouse. When other avenues failed, Vaccaro filed Freedom of Information Law requests to force the police to show the family Lefevre's accident-investigation file.

What they found inside the file was appalling, and not just because Lefevre hadn't run a red light after all: The police didn't take a single picture of the accident scene because their camera was broken that day. Critical evidence, including paint and blood on the truck's bumper, went unnoted. Official accounts of the accident differed from each other and from the geographic facts of the intersection, and investigators' descriptions of the recovered video footage bore almost no relation to what the footage actually showed.

As the Lefevre case quickly became a rallying cry for bike-safety advocates, it has also caught the attention of the City Council, which held a hearing last week to ask the NYPD to account for its apparent inability to hold motorists responsible when they kill bicyclists.

At the hearing, Deputy Chief John Cassidy of the NYPD's Transportation Bureau and Assistant Commissioner Susan Petito conceded that the Accident Investigation Squad—effectively the only unit equipped to bring criminal charges against a motorist in this sort of case—isn't even called unless the victim is thought likely to die.

They also told councilmembers that even though the state legislators recently passed a law increasing penalties for drivers who injure pedestrians or cyclists, NYPD policy forbids patrol officers from invoking that law except in the unlikely event that they witnessed the accident firsthand.

Councilmembers were clearly angry.

"It's really unacceptable—there's something wrong with our priorities," Councilmember Brad Lander said. 

The deputy chief pushed back on the City Council, noting that overall traffic safety has increased even as budget cuts have slashed police staffing, and said the NYPD just doesn't have the resources to devote a dedicated investigation team to every bicycle accident.

Councilwoman Letitia James noted the irony of the department pleading scarce resources, and suggested that if the NYPD shifted its focus "from stopping and frisking people of color all throughout the city of New York in record numbers and your countersurveillance efforts surveilling innocent members of the Muslim community, and perhaps focus on public safety in the city of New York, it would go a long way."

The stakes are only going to get higher: Starting this summer, the city will roll out the latest phase of Bloomberg's cycle-friendly campaign—the largest bike-share program in history. Ten thousand new rental bicycles will fill the city's streets.

After her own testimony at the hearing, Mathieu Lefevre's mother, Erika, sat in the back of the room and spoke quietly with another bereaved mother. When Samira Shamoon's daughter Rasha was killed in 2008 while cycling near the intersection of Bowery and Delancey, the NYPD ignored important evidence, failed to interview any eyewitnesses, and blamed the dead cyclist. Three and a half years and one lawsuit later, it was finally established that the responsibility actually lay not with Rasha but rather with the driver who slammed into her.

After the hearing, Erika said her conversation with Samira had been both comforting and alarming.

"It took her three and a half years to resolve her case," Erika said quietly. "I'm thinking, 'Do I have to wait three and a half years to get any kind of closure?'"

npinto@villagevoice.com

 
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