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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11 comments
Jay Diamond
Jay Diamond

There exists a chain of predation in NYC. The cars are predators of bicyclists and pedstrians, but the bicyclists are predators of pedestrians. There is zero enforcement of the relentless breaking of traffic laws by individuals riding bikes for commercial or recreational purposes.

Being killed or maimed by a car is no worse than being killed or maimed by a bicyclist running red lights or worse, as happens all the time in NYC.

George
George

Things happen sometimes people die, the road should be made safer for everyone to share the road, but putting people in jail for car accidents really? I think this is going to far. I've never hit a anyone in the city while driving around but I have had bikers run into the back of my car and after denting it just ride off. Their should be bike lanes, better bike lanes than what they have currently. But when we are talking about criminalizing accidents this is just taking it to far. And I'm sure someday soon it will one of you idiots calling for criminalization to be the next person to run down a biker in your blind spot. Accidents happen. Shit Happens, you can't save everyone, people die sometimes, its sad but its called life, if you don't like it build yourself a bubble and live in it. The Last Thing We Need Is Any More Laws & More People In Prison.

Stonewallfarmer
Stonewallfarmer

It's time for Michael Bloomberg to ride off into the sunset, hopefully never to be seen or heard from again.

AIM FOR THE MOON
AIM FOR THE MOON

Bloomberg takes pride in the sweeping transformation of New York into a POLICE STATE.

NYPD issues more tickets then ever not to mention illegal searches. Bloomberg buying hi$ third term was an outrage!

John Thiel
John Thiel

As both a cyclist who has not only been hit but gone through multiple surgeries as a result, and driver, I don't understand the push to criminalize traffic accidents where the driver wasn't doing something illegal such as talking on their cell phone at the time. Most cyclists don't even contact a lawyer or follow-up with an orthopedist after getting hit, but they want the driver to go to prison for an accident?

KeNYC2030
KeNYC2030

Thank you for focusing attention on the NYPD's shamefully misplaced priorities.

Opus the Poet
Opus the Poet

The scary thing is the Lefever case is only the tip of the iceberg. In cases where I have had access to the crime scene photography the narrative of the wreck would not be able to produce the damages seen in the pictures. In some cases the physical damages would require the bicycle to have been ridden backwards to match the narrative. That's when you know they are just making stuff up to fit their agenda instead of actually doing an investigation.

station44025
station44025

One of the most thorough and contextualized reports on this hearing I've seen. Thanks.

CORiverRat
CORiverRat

As both a cyclist who has not only been hit but gone through multiple surgeries as a result, and driver I have to say I am glad that my driver was cited and had to have penalties for her inattentiveness, her illegal left hand turn, her reckless driving that except for some dumb luck (I landed on my head and handlebars and the police and paramedics who arrived at the scene all agreed I should have been killer or at least crippled by her actions). I do blame her for not carrying enough insurance to even pay for my medical bills but thankfully I carry uninsured motorist coverage which should take care of the bills I have outstanding.

That said, I agree too many municipalities (mine included but a fatality of a cyclist right in front of our local high school who was killed by a texting driver has helped improve this) have a blame the cyclist attitude even in cases where the cyclist did EVERYTHING RIGHT!!!!

That said, what is even worse here in Colorado is that if you Hit and Run a cyclist you will get little more than a slap on the wrist. The laws in CO make hit and run a lesser offense than DWI/DUI. Hopefully that will be changed soon...

Opus the Poet
Opus the Poet

Completely different things. The context is that people are getting killed and drivers who broke the laws are not even getting traffic tickets, because of slipshod "investigations" if the wreck is even investigated at all. And to quote my flight instructor, "there's no such thing as an 'accident', every incident involves some form of human error that could have been prevented."

George
George

Opus, people are people, and all people make Errors, sometimes those result in a laugh other times something bad, but a mistake is a mistake, and unless someone is going around trying to run people over, an accident should not be criminal.

 
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