Under pressure from City Council and a coalition of bicycle and pedestrian advocates, the NYPD has made changes to how it investigates — and talks about — traffic collisions.
In a letter to city councilors revealed yesterday, Police Chief Ray Kelly announced a number of changes in how the department handles traffic collisions. The NYPD has been criticized for years over its tendency to let dangerous drivers off easy, even after they’ve injured or killed cyclists, pedestrians, or other motorists.
When the criticisms finally resulted in police brass being called before a a City Council hearing last year, it was revealed that the NYPD didn’t even send an Accident Investigation Squad to a crash site unless someone actually died or was thought likely to die. Without the detailed investigation that only that team is trained to perform, prosecuting motorists is next to impossible.
But with several bills to overhaul the NYPD’s treatment of crashes coming up for a vote in City Council, Kelly attempted to head them off with this week’s letter, which described a beefing up of the specialist investigation team and an expansion of its use to include crashes that include critical injuries.
That change was welcomed by street-safety activists, but many said it isn’t enough. “I’m glad that the NYPD will ‘notify’ the AIS in cases with critical injuries,” said Steve Vaccaro, a lawyer who specializes in the issue. “But I’m not sure how they can draw that line, which is different from the one drawn for them by state law, which says ‘serious injury.'”
Vaccaro also noted that Kelly’s lawyer doesn’t say that the investigation squad will be deployed in cases with critical injury, only that they’ll be notified. “I don’t want to parse this too closely, but does that mean that the squad retains the ability not to go out, even if they’re notified?” he asked.
In a symbolic shift that nonetheless gratifies many street safety activists, the NYPD will also rename its Accident Investigation Squad to the Collision Investigation Squad. “In the past the term “accident” has given the inaccurate impression or connotation that there is no fault or liability,” Kelly explained in his letter. The change is an obvious concession
“Is it any surprise that the NYPD’s “Accident” Investigation Squad so frequently declares “no criminality suspected” after a motor vehicle is used to kill a pedestrian or cyclist on New York City streets?” asked Aaron Naparstek in Transportation Alternatives’s newsletter last summer.
“After all, they don’t call themselves the Motor Vehicle Manslaughter Squad. They don’t think of themselves as homicide detectives, or cars as weapons, or drivers as killers. The word “accident” implies no fault. It’s what we call it when a toddler makes a small mess. “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” we say. The assumption is built into the name of the NYPD bureaucracy itself: Death by motor vehicle is an “accident” before the investigators even get to what may very well be the scene of a crime. The Accident Investigation Squad is there to clean up and keep the traffic moving.”
Meanwhile, as a story in today’s New York Times makes clear, the NYPD is only part of the problem: the state’s Court of Appeals has steadily made it more difficult for prosecutors to bring top charges against reckless drivers.
Even with the changes announced in Kelly’s letter, Naparstek says there’s still more to be done. “Accelerating DOT’s work to redesign streets to make them safer for all users,” he says. “We need City Council members and Community Boards and the next mayor to really get behind that.” Naparstek also wants more automated traffic enforcement, an initiative currently being held up by a single legislator in Albany.
For his part, Vaccaro sees the need for an even more fundamental change: writing in Streetsblog just last week, he called for the adoption of a strict liability standard for traffic violence — the same standard applied to public urination, being in the park after curfew, and biking on the sidewalk.
“How can it be that a cyclist endangering pedestrians on the sidewalk may be presumed a criminal,” Vaccaro asked “But there is ‘no criminality suspected’ when a motorist actually strikes and kills on the sidewalk or in the crosswalk? An expansion of strict liability criminal statutes for drivers is exactly what New York City needs to stem the tide of traffic violence.”