The NYPD Won’t Investigate

Jacob stevens speaking at a city hall rally to demand that the nypd reform its crash investigation practices.
Image Courtesy Andrew Hinderaker

According to witnesses, the man who killed Clara Heyworth was speeding. He had been drinking too. And he was behind the wheel without a driver’s license. But when Clara Heyworth was struck by a car on Vanderbilt Avenue in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, on the morning of July 10th, none of that mattered; not the black skid marks stretching across the pavement or the blood on the driver’s car. A five-word phrase in the New York City Police Department’s Patrol Guide is behind that inexcusable absence of an investigation.

Those five words, “dead or likely to die,” dictate who from the NYPD shows up after a crash: a specialized squad that focuses on traffic collisions, or the shift officers who’d handle a run-of-the-mill fender bender. According to T.A.’s General Counsel, Juan Martinez, the difference between those investigations is that “one is thorough and one is useless in a court of law.”

The key factor in making that decision—and setting the tone for everything that happens after—is a momentary determination by the responding emergency room doctor: If they believe any victim of a crash is “dead or likely to die,” the NYPD’s highly-trained Accident Investigation Squad reports to the scene of the crash. And if that emergency room doctor decides the victim isn’t “dead or likely to die,” like they apparently did in Clara Heyworth’s case—or like they do routinely in cases involving paralysis, comas or missing limbs—then no one who’s qualified to investigate a traffic crash shows up at the scene.

Of course, Clara Heyworth did not survive. Despite a series of operations, she died the next day. In that time, the driver who hit her was released and, though still unlicensed, he was given the keys to his car and allowed to drive home.
At a City Hall rally this summer, Clara Heyworth’s husband, Jacob Stevens, told the crowd: “I thought that the police would go to the scene of Clara’s death, take photographs, check surveillance cameras, and look for witnesses. We thought the driver was still in custody, that his car had been impounded, and that he would be tested for drugs and alcohol. The New York Police Department did none of those things. Not one.”

Jacob Stevens is not alone. Every year, more than 78,000 crashes happen in New York City. Someone is seriously injured or killed in more than 5 percent of those crashes, but the New York City Police Department investigates less than one-half of one percent of the total.

This summer, with the support of Jacob Stevens and other New Yorkers who have lost loved ones to motor vehicle crashes, T.A. helped introduce a suite of bills in the City Council that would change the way the NYPD investigates traffic crashes. One of the pieces of legislation would convene a task force to analyze when and how the NYPD deals with any vehicle collision involving serious bodily harm. It would almost certainly result in reform of the “dead or likely to die” rule that allowed Clara Heyworth’s killer to drive away free while she passed away. Although that can’t heal the wounds left behind whenever someone is killed or injured in a traffic crash, it would aid in prosecution and civil suits, and inform survivors, loved ones and every New Yorker who walks, bikes or drives.

As of press time, the legislation is awaiting a hearing from the City Council’s transportation committee, but it has already forced the NYPD to take a hard look at how it investigates traffic crashes. T.A. is monitoring the department’s progress and has heard from sources that reform is on the way.