This morning the City Council grilled representatives from the NYPD on why so few drivers face criminal charges after killing or maiming pedestrians and cyclists. The hearing room was so packed that it overflowed into a second room, which also swelled over capacity—the heavy turnout on a weekday morning suggests the NYPD's handling of crash investigations is an increasingly hot topic. The department has been widely criticized for failing to issue criminal charges to drivers after serious accidents, as well as withholding the most basic details about their investigations. Today Councilmembers tried to understand why so many drivers get away with murder.
More New Yorkers are killed every year by motor vehicles than guns, said Councilmember James Vacca, who kicked off the hearing by declaring, "We don't accept gun violence as a way to die, and we shouldn't accept traffic deaths either." Vacca's first question to Deputy Chief John Cassidy, the NYPD Chief of Transportation, was about speeding, and how often drivers caught speeding are charged with reckless endangerment. The answer came not from Cassidy, but from Susan Petito, an NYPD attorney, who politely explained that they simply don't know, because reckless endangerment charges "are not segregated in the database" and can't be easily found.
The NYPD reps frequently cited their inability to search for data during the hearing. At the same time, the department touted its TrafficStat data, which Chief Cassidy argued has enabled the department to reduce traffic fatalities by 39% over the past decade, through targeted enforcement of accident-prone areas. But when Councilmember Pete Vallone wanted to know how many drivers got criminal charges after non-fatal accidents, he was greeted with a long pause. "Not sure we can provide those numbers," said the NYPD reps. "That would require a hand search. Because reckless endangerment charges involve a narrative."
Here's what we do know, and it helps explain why so many drivers get away with murder:
The NYPD issued more summonses to cyclists than truck drivers last year: truckers got 14,962 moving violation summonses and 10,415 Criminal Court summonses, while cyclists got 13,743 moving violation summonses and a whopping 34,813 Criminal Court summonses. Priorities!
The NYPD Accident Investigation Squad [AIS] only has 19 detectives, three sergeants, and one lieutenant, but is responsible for investigating fatal accidents for the entire city. But don't worry, there's always at least one detective on duty at all times.
The AIS will only investigate accidents in which the victim dies or seems likely to die. If you get hit by a driver and end up in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, there's no AIS investigation. The patrol officers will fill out an accident report, and traffic tickets might be issued, but there will never be an in-depth investigation or follow-up.
241 pedestrians or cyclists were killed by drivers last year. Only 17 of the drivers responsible faced criminal charges.
Asked how many criminal charges were filed against drivers in non-fatal accidents, the NYPD reps said they were not aware of any.
Hayley and Diego's Laws were created to empower the NYPD to issue "careless driving" charges, but the NYPD says judges have repeatedly thrown out these charges on the grounds that an officer has to personally witness the accident in order to file the charge.
And because traffic court judges have been throwing out "careless driving" tickets, the NYPD says they've instructed patrolmen not to issue them. Only the AIS is currently authorized to file charges under Hayley and Diego's law, and since AIS only investigates fatal accidents, the law hasn't done much good. Councilmember Brad Lander was particularly galled by this, asking the NYPD reps, "More than 3,000 crashes last year led to serious injury, and yet patrolmen can't write a ticket [under Hayley and Diego's law]?"
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