City Council questions NYPD about car-wreck responses
City Council members grilled police officials Wednesday, saying they weren't doing enough to hold "reckless drivers" responsible for killing or maiming pedestrians and bicyclists.
"None of these drivers faced any charges more serious than your garden-variety traffic ticket, if that," said Council Member Jimmy Vacca, who heads the transportation committee, during a joint meeting of his committee and one on public safety. "And yet, someone's life was changed forever or gone entirely."
John Cassidy, Deputy Chief of the NYPD's Transportation Bureau, countered that there were a record-low 241 traffic fatalities last year, down from 393 in 2001. Injuries, he said, were down 39% in the same period.
"It is not that we're not doing anything out there, I think it's quite the contrary," he said. "We are doing a lot with a lot less."
But Cassidy drew ire from legislators and transit advocates for confirming something they had long suspected: detectives assigned to investigate car accidents will only show up if someone is dead or expected to die.
"The [NYPD's] Accident Investigation Squad responds to fatalities or [accidents where people are] seriously injured and likely to expire," Cassidy said.
Cassidy was then asked if the squad - which has only 19 detectives citywide - would be sent if the injured pedestrian were paralyzed.
"Maybe," he answered, but "if there is not a likely to die or death, then no, they wouldn't respond."
Last year, the specialized squad investigated 304 cases, according to NYPD statistics; 241 of them resulted in at least one death. Officials said they didn't know of any charges brought in cases where pedestrians were deemed "unlikely to die" by doctors.
Despite NYPD protocols to only have the team investigate cases where someone was fatally injured, police said they faced other obstacles in bringing charges, including a depletion of manpower - there were 40% fewer highway cops last year than in 2000 - and summonses are often dismissed by traffic court in cases where the officer didn't observe the accident. In some cases, "the facts and fault are not sufficiently clear to establish a crime was committed," Cassidy said.
But several victims and their families attended the hearing and blasted the NYPD for what they called "bungled" investigations.
Erika Lefevre, whose 30-year-old son Mathieu, of Williamsburg, was mowed down by a trucker last October while riding his bicycle, said cops made errors in their report that contradicted video, didn't take pictures of the crime scene because their camera was busted - though they did take pictures of his family protesting against the agency at police headquarters - and told the driver he wouldn't be charged weeks before telling Lefevre's family.
"The loss of our son is devastating," Erika Lefevre told the council as she fought back tears. "Our dealings with the NYPD has made that loss even more painful."
"The NYPD must take traffic crime more seriously, instead of trivializing it," she added.
Peter Vallone, who heads the council's public safety committee, said current law allows police to arrest drivers for reckless endangerment, but the NYPD declines to do so.
"They should be taking the reports and investigating right now, and they just don't," Vallone told amNewYork after the hearing.
"They are not paying attention to reckless drivers," he said of the NYPD. "I don't know why it hasn't been a priority."
Vallone said the City Council is pursuing a law that would allow cops to seize cars from reckless drivers, and that a bill was in the state legislature to strengthen laws to allow police to make arrests based on evidence and witness testimony after car accidents even when they don't witness crimes.
Follow reporter Marc Beja on Twitter: @marc_beja