Hit and Run

The NYPD’s Crash Investigation Problem

The New York City Police Department can shoot an airplane out of the sky, it can operate a top-secret counterterrorism bureau with agents around the world, it can even partner with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop a body-scanning machine that detects concealed weapons from 25 meters.

Lefevre, a 30-year-old painter, was struck and killed by a truck driver making an unindicated right turn from Morgan Avenue onto Meserole Street in Williamsburg. The vehicle’s operator, who left the scene, claims he did not see Lefevre and was unaware he hit him, despite police reports that indicate the young man was first struck by the bumper directly below the driver’s seat, then dragged 40 feet, and his bicycle another 130 feet. The Brooklyn District Attorney has agreed to review the investigation, but as of press time the NYPD had only issued a pair of summonses to the driver.

What the NYPD can’t do, however, is find the time, resources or compassion to adequately investigate the traffic crashes that kill and seriously injure more than 4,000 people in the city each year. At least that’s the impression you’ll get if you can stomach keeping up with these things.

Take, for example, the case of Mathieu Lefevre, a 30-year-old artist who was killed just after midnight on October 19th of last year. He was biking home to his apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when a truck driver hit him and drove away.

When his parents came to New York from their home in western Canada to collect his belongings and hear what had happened from the police, they waited at the 90th Precinct for more than four hours before leaving without speaking to a detective, collecting their son’s belongings or even seeing a crash report.

The first information they got from the police, they read on the Internet. An unnamed officer from the 90th Precinct told a Gothamist reporter, “The NYPD had concluded that Lefevre had run a red light at the intersection.”

Five long days later, the Lefevre family finally sat face to face with an NYPD detective. He told them there was no indication that their son had run a red light, showed them a diagram that suggested the truck driver had hit their child with the front of his vehicle before leaving the scene, and let them know that the driver, who the police eventually tracked down, claimed he didn’t realize he had hit their son and would not face criminal charges.

“It’s been extremely frustrating,” Lefevre’s mother said at a press conference held a day after she sat down with that detective. “We still do not have very much information at all. We’ve been to the scene of the accident, and there are many questions that we have, but so far no one has been able to answer our questions. The police have not let us know anything, really.” And that is just the start of the family’s experience with New York’s Finest.

Shamoon, a member of both T .A. and Times Up!, was hit at the intersection of Delancey and Bowery by a 21-year-old driver with six prior traffic convictions. The official police conclusion—that Shamoon had run a red light—was based solely on the driver’s and his passenger s’ statements. The responding officer made no effort to seek out other witnesses, despite numerous 911 calls from bystanders. The driver was released and never charged.

The worst part of this story isn’t that it has dragged on for months or that, as of press time, the driver has only received two traffic summonses for his actions. No, the worst part is that it’s common. What happened to the Lefevres is entirely predictable, so much so that the news website Gothamist called the episode “sadly familiar” and the Village Voice ran a feature story titled ‘Why Won’t the NYPD Charge Motorists Who Maim or Kill?’

Why, indeed?

New York City has roughly 6,000 miles of streets and 1.75 million registered motor vehicles. Every year, the City’s 34,500 police officers document more than 53,000 car crashes involving personal injury and an additional 25,000 that involve property damage. The NYPD investigations of those 78,000 incidents fall into two very distinct categories.

A highly specialized team known as the Accident Investigation Squad conducts one type. At its best, their work is the stuff that TV cop dramas are made of. They interview witnesses, measure skid marks, track down videotape and forensic evidence, reconstruct the scene and determine whether traffic laws were violated.

According to Steve Vaccaro, an attorney familiar with the NYPD’s crash-investigation procedures (as well as a Transportation Alternatives member and the Lefevre’s counsel), “There is every indication that the NYPD does not use the Accident Investigation Squad in anything other than a fatality.”

The driver who struck Matson, leaving her in critical condition on Franklin Street in Greenpoint, fled the scene. Although the vehicle was found less than a day later and only a few blocks from the crash, the driver has never been identified. The vehicle’s owner told police that he lost his keys at a bar and walked home the night Matson was hit. The investigating officer made no efforts to corroborate that story with other patrons at the bar. When asked about the investigation by Matson’s boyfriend, the officer reportedly responded, “You know, we got a lot of other cases. We’re really busy.”

For crashes that result in injury—no matter how severe— the investigation usually involves little more than a cursory form known as an MV-104. The same document catalogs everything from fender benders to multi-car pileups that result in lost limbs and paralysis. According to Vaccaro, the MV-104 amounts to little more than a list of statements, the weather at the time of the collision and the incident’s location. “It’s just enough so that the people involved can get no-fault coverage or pursue a lawsuit,” he said. “It basically certifies that something happened to someone.”

MV-104 reports, and the non-specialized investigations that occasionally follow, are all that thousands of New York City crash victims have to show for their lifealtering injuries. They’re all James Paz and Michelle Matson have after a speeding driver hit the couple and fled from the scene late one October night in 2010, leaving Paz with broken ribs and Matson with a fractured skull, a broken neck and a shattered left leg that kept her from walking until the following March.

Despite bystanders who witnessed a four-door sedan speeding, screeching and swerving before smashing into Matson, throwing her body down the street, police have never identified the driver. Paz is convinced that they never even tried. “It didn’t seem like they were willing to do any sort of investigation,” he told the Village Voice.

Matson remembers asking the local detective who handled their case, “Did you check the video footage from the bars along Franklin Street?” He ignored the question, as he did so many others.

The non-response she remembers best of all is the last one she heard from the detective: “Listen,” he told her, “You’re lucky to be alive.” After that she stopped calling.

This two-tiered investigation system is one of the main reasons that the NYPD so often finds “no criminality” in non-fatal crashes that result in very serious injuries: Simply put, they’re not looking for it. There is no mechanism in place that demands a thoughtful and detailed examination of the facts.

14-year-old Andre Anderson was cycling along Shore Front Parkway when a speeding SUV struck him from behind. He was thrown from his bike and died when he hit the pavement. The responding officers chose not to interview witnesses—though there were several—and allowed the driver to leave without submitting to a breathalyzer test. After the fatal collision, the driver was only issued a speeding ticket, which was later dismissed because it was incorrectly written.

Even when the Accident Investigation Squad gets involved, as it did in the Lefevre case, there’s no guarantee that detectives will exhibit the “courtesy, professionalism and respect” that the NYPD boldly emblazons on its squad cars.

According to Vaccaro, the Accident Investigation Squad detectives involved in that case lost crucial evidence, jumped to conclusions based on false assumptions and responded irresponsibly to requests for information. In a letter sent to Sergeant Matthew Bono of the NYPD’s Highway Unit (which houses the Accident Investigation Squad), Vaccaro claims that a detective assigned to the case reported watching blood wash from the bumper of the truck that struck and killed Lefevre.

“NYPD failed to preserve this evidence, or even take pictures or make written descriptions of it,” Erika Lefevre said in a prepared statement. “In fact, no pictures of the crash scene were taken at all, because the investigators’ camera was broken. Yet remarkably, the investigation file contains numerous photographs of our family and our lawyer.”

According to Maureen McCormick, a former Brooklyn District Attorney (whose interview with Reclaim appears on page 10), this kind of behavior by the Accident Investigation Squad is an anomaly. She believes that AIS is the City’s best hope for increasing the number of criminal charges brought against drivers who kill and seriously injure New Yorkers.

Steve Vaccaro—despite his recent experience with the AIS—agrees. He told Reclaim, “The NYPD needs to send the Accident Investigation Squad out to the entire range of serious injury cases, as well as fatalities.” He added, “Solid forensic evidence, properly collected, handled, and shared with the relevant parties in a timely manner would aid in prosecution, as well as grieving.”

Nacht and his wife—both avid cyclists—were biking home along the Hudson River Greenway when an NYPD tow truck driver turned off the West Side Highway and struck him. He died a few days later. Despite having ignored a yield sign, the driver was not given a summons; the only penalty was a three-month license suspension.

Advocates for safer streets often say that if you want to kill someone in New York City, do it with a car. “It’s a horrible thought: murderous, violent, creepy and tasteless, but it also has a kernel of truth to it,” says Juan Martinez, who is heading up Transportation Alternatives’ crash investigation project. “Police investigations too often imagine the streets through a car’s windshield.”

In their mind, traffic is filled with mistakes: Due to the speeds and the weights and the perceptual shortcomings involved, tragedies happen. And, for better or worse, they empathize. Police officers, policy makers, elected officials and some of the most caring and compassionate people on the planet can imagine what it might be like to sit behind the wheel when the unthinkable happens.

These same people rarely imagine the other side of the scenario, though: the family member lost without warning, life in a wheelchair, fear at the sound of an approaching motor vehicle. And far too few are willing to concede that not all traffic crashes are equal; that some choices, like speeding, set the stage for tragedy. That’s a sad state of affairs, but it’s where we are, and it impacts our streets and our city and the lives of thousands of New Yorkers every year.

“All too often, there is a windshield perspective in crash investigation,” Vaccaro told Reclaim. “Except when the driver is intoxicated or hits and runs, the NYPD rarely looks for criminality. We need to come to view any traffic violation that harms someone as a crime.”