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Posts from the "Traffic Justice" Category

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SFPD Arrests Two Drivers After Holiday Spate of Pedestrian Deaths

Uber driver Syed Muzzafar’s SUV at Polk and Ellis Streets, where he ran over a family of three, killing Sophia Liu, 6. Muzzafar was later arrested. Photo: KTVU

In what could be a departure from the SF Police Department’s usual failure to penalize reckless driving, officers have arrested two of the five motorists who have killed people on San Francisco streets since December 20.

In the last hours of 2013, the year’s pedestrian death toll increased to 20. Both of the crashes in which the drivers were arrested took place on New Year’s Eve, and appear to be the fault of motorists who failed to yield to people in a crosswalk. Last year, none of the other sober drivers who killed pedestrians without fleeing the scene are known to have been charged.

Syed Muzzafar (left) and Giampaolo Boschetti (right) were both arrested for killing pedestrians on New Year’s Eve. Photos: SFPD

In one incident, at about 3:30 p.m., 86-year-old Zhen Guang Ng was run down in a crosswalk at Naples and Rolph Streets in Crocker-Amazon by 69-year-old Giampaolo Boschetti, who was booked on charges of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and failure to stop at a stop sign, according to police.

In a later crash at 8 p.m. in the Tenderloin, an Uber ride-share driver, 57-year-old Syed Muzzafar of Union City, ran over a mother and her two children in a crosswalk as he turned right at Polk and Ellis Streets, according to reports. All three were hospitalized, and six-year-old Sofia Liu died from her injuries. The SFPD said Muzzafar was arrested on charges of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk.

Before the arrests were announced, SFPD Traffic Company Commander Mikail Ali told the SF Examiner that he mainly attributed the recent rise in pedestrian deaths — a six-year high — to the increased walking and driving that comes with job growth. He also appeared, however, to take a more serious tone towards “grossly negligent” drivers than the department has conveyed in the past.

“We’re bringing more and more people into our city and with that is a challenge of managing and getting better behavior on the part of our drivers and in some cases on the part of pedestrians,” Ali told the Examiner. “When you behave in such a grossly negligent way, you’re going to find yourself unfortunately going to jail when you take someone’s life on the roadway.”

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SFPD Renames MAIT Team, Removes “Accident” From Web Site

The SFPD’s Major Accident Investigation Team has been renamed the Traffic Collision Investigation Team, and the department’s website has removed the term “accident” from its contact info page. The news follows a Streetsblog post on October 21, in which we pointed out that SFPD regularly violates its official policy of referring to car crashes as “collisions.”

The SFPD reportedly announced to the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee this week that the MAIT team had been renamed, and a cursory Google search of the term “accident” on the SFPD website turns up only one result, found in the description of the Traffic Company. All other instances on the SFPD’s web pages appear to have been removed. None of the SFPD’s press releases and daily press recaps in recent weeks appeared to have used “accident,” either.

The SFPD deserves credit for responding to this long-standing oversight. The vocabulary chosen by law enforcement officials is important — it can set the tone for how traffic violence is viewed by officers and the public.

Looking forward, we’re hoping to see the department’s view of deaths and injuries on our streets as preventable tragedies consistently reflected by thorough crash investigations and data-driven prioritization of traffic enforcement.

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Contrary to SFPD Policy, Police Still Refer to “Collisions” as “Accidents”

Anyone who keeps track of the daily reports that come out of the SFPD’s press office might be surprised to learn that the department has a policy of using the term “collision” — not “accident” — when referring to traffic crashes. That’s because, in practice, the SFPD’s top brass and press officers use “accident” as their term of choice, while “collision” is used only occasionally.

SFPD's Major Accident Investigation Team inspects the scene of a fatal crash between a bicycle rider and a Muni driver Friday. Image: KTVU

“It has always been ‘collision.’ ‘Accident’ is a term that is misused. There is always someone at fault, therefore, not an accident but a collision,” said SFPD spokesperson Albie Esparza when asked about the discrepancy.

But SFPD regresses into “accident” mode very often. The department’s most recent press release on a traffic collision was yesterday, sent out with the subject line, “Traffic Accident at Third and Gilman Streets”:

The San Francisco Police Department responded to a traffic accident at approximately 12:59 pm.  A 12 year old child was transported to SFGH for medical treatment. An accident investigation is taking place, and anyone who may have witnessed the accident is encouraged to call the police.

“We all grew up with the term ‘car accident,’ but in truth, they are traffic collisions,” said SFPD Deputy Chief Mike Biel after a City Hall hearing on an apparent pattern of hostility and bias against bicycle riders in crash investigations. “Nobody goes out in the morning trying to crash their car into somebody or into something, so it’s not done on purpose obviously — unless they were driving recklessly and we can show that there was negligence — but they are traffic collisions.”

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Investigation on the Trucker Who Killed Emitt Jackson Remains Opaque

On October 4, a truck driver crushed 68-year-old Emitt Jackson, pinning him against a parked vehicle and killing him. But police have yet to release the name of the driver, any further information on the investigation, and whether the driver could face charges. Jackson is at least the 11th pedestrian to be killed in SF this year.

Pacific at Polk, where Jackson was killed. Image: Google Maps

From an SF Chronicle report on October 6:

Emitt Jackson, 68, of Martinez, was unloading or loading a parked vehicle on Pacific Avenue at Polk Street on Friday when a truck parked behind him suddenly accelerated and pinned him against the other vehicle, according to Officer Albie Esparza.

Jackson was rushed to San Francisco General Hospital, where he died of his injuries.

Esparza said the victim may have been working with the driver of the truck that hit him, but investigators had not yet figured out why it lurched forward and hit him. The driver remained at the scene and has been cooperating with the investigators, Esparza said.

We sent an email to SFPD asking for an update on the status of the investigation, whether any arrests have been made, and if there’s been a determination as to how the incident occurred. In response, Esparza only stated that “there is no new update on the case.”

“The city needs to let the public know that there are penalties for people who kill other people, and that those cases aren’t just slipping through the cracks,” said Nicole Schneider, executive director of Walk SF.

“We still don’t know how Emmitt Jackson’s case is being handled, if at all,” Schneider added, pointing to the April article from the Center for Investigative Reporting, which showed that Bay Area drivers rarely face legal penalties for killing pedestrians, even when found at fault.

“We’re all pedestrians at some point, and that when on foot, we are the most vulnerable roadway user,” Schneider said. “The human body is no match [for the] sheer weight of cars and trucks. This tragedy sheds light on a systemic injustice in our city.”

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Victims Share Tales of SFPD Anti-Bike Bias and Hostility at City Hall

At the scene of this 2009 crash where a driver made an illegal turn and hit a woman on a bicycle, an SFPD officer told Streetsblog’s Bryan Goebel that he thought all San Franciscans who ride bikes should be moved to Treasure Island. Photo: Bryan Goebel

When Sarah Harling was hospitalized by a minivan driver who made a left turn into her at a stop sign intersection, she says the SFPD officer who filed the police report included a fabricated statement from her claiming that she “approached the stop sign without stopping.”

Sarah Harling. Image: SFGovTV

Harling said she tried to submit a response to the numerous “factual errors” in the police report, but an officer at SFPD’s Richmond Station “raised his voice to lecture me about how traffic laws apply to cyclists too, how he’d never let his children ride bikes in the city, and then told me repeatedly, ‘I’m not telling you you can’t leave this here, but you just need to understand that sometimes things get lost.’”

“I left the station in tears,” she said.

Harling later hired an attorney, who collected witness statements and a photo, which showed the driver to be at fault and led the driver’s insurance company to settle for his or her maximum amount of coverage available.

“To say that the San Francisco Police Department failed to investigate my crash is not quite accurate. Rather, they refused to. Repeatedly,” said Harling. “I got the message, again and again, that because I had been riding my bicycle, it was my fault.”

Harling was one of dozens of bicycle riders who shared stories of hostile encounters with San Francisco police at a hearing held by a Board of Supervisors committee last week, testifying to what appears to be an anti-bike bias among many officers when it comes to investigating conflicts and crashes between people driving and biking.

“It’s not everyone in the force, but there is a systemic problem among police department officers when it comes to treating people fairly and equally who are biking and walking,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the SF Bicycle Coalition. “We have regular accounts of people who are treated, at best, unprofessionally, and at worst, unjustly.”

The hearing comes after the fumbled investigation of the death of 24-year-old Amelie Le Moullac, who was run over by a truck driver at Folsom and Sixth Streets in August. SFPD investigators apparently didn’t bother to ask nearby businesses if they had surveillance footage of the crash, though an SFBC staffer found it within 10 minutes. After seeing the  footage, SFPD found the truck driver at fault. Although the SFPD has said it submitted the case to the district attorney to examine for charges, the current status of the case is unclear.

At the memorial and rally held for Le Moullac, immediately after which the SFBC found the footage, SFPD Sergeant Richard Ernst parked his cruiser in the Folsom bike lane to make a point that the onus is on bicycle riders to pass to the left of right-turning cars. Ernst declared all three victims who have been killed this year to be at fault, including 48-year-old Diana Sullivan, who was sitting stopped at a red light at King and Third Streets in March when a trucker ran her over.

Such stories are reported regularly by victims who say officers have automatically assumed they were at fault in crashes, made false claims about bicycling and traffic laws, and even made threats. In one such story reported by Streetsblog in March 2012, a couple bicycling on Oak Street along the Wiggle (before the existing bike lane was installed) was harassed by a driver who injured one of the victims. The officer who responded at the scene threatened to throw the bleeding victim in jail for “vandalizing the vehicle.”

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SFPD Faults Trucker in Le Moullac’s Death, Apologizes for Ernst’s Behavior

SFPD Chief Greg Suhr gives a thumbs up at a stop light on Seventh Street on yesterday's bike-share celebration ride to City Hall. Photo: Aaron Bialick

San Francisco police have determined that the truck driver who killed Amelie Le Moullac on her bike this month was at fault for the crash, after footage of the incident was found by the SF Bicycle Coalition. SFPD Chief Greg Suhr has also apologized in statements to the press for the behavior of Sergeant Richard Ernst, who stopped by at a rally and memorial held in Le Moullac’s honor to harass bicycle advocates and blame victims killed on bicycles this year for their own deaths.

The determination of fault in the crash at Folsom in Sixth Streets, first reported by the SF Chronicle’s Chuck Nevius, apparently confirms that the driver made an illegal right turn in front of Le Moullac, failing to yield and merge into the bike lane. The SFPD, which had initially indicated that there was no wrongdoing on the part of the driver, says that it will submit the case to District Attorney George Gascón’s office, who will decide whether or not to press criminal charges, according to the SF Examiner. The DA’s office has reportedly not received the case yet.

“We’re satisfied with the conclusion because we believe it comports with the evidence that Ms. Le Moullac did nothing to contribute to this collision,” said Micha Star Liberty, an attorney representing Le Moullac’s family. Liberty said that while the family “looks forward to a decision being made” by the DA, “it really doesn’t impact the civil rights of the family, which is geared towards ways to compensate victims.”

When I asked Chief Suhr why surveillance video footage of the crash wasn’t found by SFPD investigators — bicycle advocate Marc Caswell tracked it down instead — he said that “there’s often times when there’s an investigation and, very fortunately, citizens make us aware of things that we might not have found on our first pass. We make mistakes. Obviously, we’re super, super happy we have this video now. I’ve seen it myself, and I think it demonstrates clearly what happened with the accident.”

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In Cleveland, Trucker Went to Prison, Lost License for Killing Woman on Bike

So far, no charges have been filed against the truck driver who earlier this month turned right across the bike lane on Folsom Street, killing 24-year-old Amelie Le Moullac. SFPD investigators are reviewing the video of the crash that SFBC staffer Marc Caswell located and handed to them — a piece of evidence that police say will be delivered the District Attorney’s office. While we await action from the city’s law enforcement agencies, a similar case out of Cleveland illustrates that the justice system can, in fact, impose real consequences for lethally negligent driving.

Sylvia Bingham of San Rafael, seen here with her parents, was killed in 2009 by a trucker in Cleveland. The driver lost his license and was sentenced to three years in prison. Photo: Sylvia Bingham Fund

In September, 2009, 22-year-old Sylvia Bingham, originally of San Rafael, was run over by a truck driver who made a right turn on a street in Cleveland, where Bingham had recently moved. The driver, Herschel Roberts, was sentenced to three years in prison and lost his driver’s license for life. A memorial ride for Bingham was held in San Francisco soon after her death.

According to the Plain Dealer, Judge Daniel Gaul found Roberts guilty of aggravated vehicular homicide, based on reasoning that could apply in Le Moullac’s case:

Before he announced the verdict, Gaul outlined the case and said Roberts, who was driving the truck for Leff Electric, had likely passed Bingham on her bike seconds earlier and, by law, had a duty to look in the truck’s mirrors before turning right onto East 21st Street from Prospect Avenue, where he had stopped at a red light.

Bingham had stopped behind him and was about to ride through the intersection when Roberts, who had made a wide turn onto East 21st Street, struck her with the back tires of the 26,000-pound truck.

“He had to know she was there,” Gaul said. “He should have known she was there.”

Gaul also said that Bingham, an experienced bicyclist, would not have proceeded through the intersection had she known Roberts would be turning. Witnesses said at trial that they could not recall that Roberts had used his turn signal.

In a letter addressed to Mayor Ed Lee, Sylvia Bingham’s father, Stephen Bingham, writes that the trucker who killed Le Moullac should be held to the same standard:

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SFBC Finds What SFPD Didn’t: Video of Crash That Killed Amelie Le Moullac

Soon after an SFPD sergeant harassed bicycle advocates at a rally for safer streets at the site where Amelie Le Moullac was killed, SF Bicycle Coalition Program Manager Marc Caswell found what SFPD investigators claimed they couldn’t: two surveillance cameras facing the street, one of which had footage showing the truck driver running over Le Moullac in the bike lane at Folsom and Sixth Streets on August 14.

Amelie Le Moullac. Photo: Voce Communications

Worse yet, all five of the businesses Caswell surveyed said police had never contacted them looking for surveillance cameras or witnesses to the crash, according to the SFBC.

“Our own staff, who were obviously not trained in police enforcement, took 10 minutes walking around and found footage that may be used as evidence down the road,” said SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum. “We really wonder whether police are discounting cases in which people biking and walking are hit and killed based on some bias among officers.”

“When it comes to instances in which bicyclists are hit on our streets,” Shahum added, “there seems to be an alarming level of blame-the-victim attitude.”

In a blog post, the SFBC noted that had Caswell not discovered the footage on that day, it would have likely been deleted before the next morning, because the camera footage is only stored for a week.

Micha Star Liberty, an attorney representing Le Moullac and her parents, said that even though the investigating officer told her earlier this week that the initial traffic collision report had been completed, the SFPD has not released it to her. In her experience representing crash victims, she said, that’s unusual.

“I personally went to 850 Bryant [the Hall of Justice] today in an attempt to pick up the completed report, and was told the family could not obtain a copy,” said Liberty. “We eagerly await the release of this information by the SFPD, and welcome any additional information from the community about Amelie’s tragic death.”

The footage was captured by a camera on the property of Golden Auto, a shop located on the corner of Folsom and Sixth. SFPD has not returned an email requesting the department to confirm that it received the video from Golden Auto, and asking why it wasn’t found by SFPD during its investigation.

The spot where Le Moullac was killed, looking roughly from the location of Golden Auto. Photo: Google Street View

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At Safe Streets Rally, SFPD Blocks Bike Lane to Make Point of Victim-Blaming

Update: Shahum reported that SFBC staffer Marc Caswell found a surveillance camera at an auto body shop which has footage of Le Moullac’s crash, even though SFPD has said no such footage could be found. More on that story later as it develops.

San Francisco Police Sergeant Richard Ernst apparently decided that the best way to make Folsom Street safer was to purposefully park his car in the bike lane this morning and force bicycle commuters into motor traffic.

Staff from the SF Bicycle Coalition were out at Folsom and Sixth Streets, handing out flyers calling for safety improvements on SoMa’s freeway-like streets in the wake of the death of Amelie Le Moullac, who was run over at the intersection last week by a truck driver who appeared to have made an illegal right-turn across the bike lane on to Sixth.

When Ernst arrived on the scene, he didn’t express sympathy for Le Moullac and other victims, or show support for safety improvements. Instead, he illegally parked his cruiser in the bike lane next to an empty parking space for up to 10 minutes, stating that he wanted to send a message to people on bicycles that the onus was on them to pass to the left of right-turning cars. He reportedly made no mention of widespread violations by drivers who turn across bike lanes instead of merging fully into them.

He said it was his “right” to be there.

According to SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum, Ernst blamed all three victims who were killed by truck drivers in SoMa and the Mission this year, and refused to leave until she “understood that it was the bicyclist’s fault.”

“This was shocking to hear, as I was told just a day ago by [SFPD Traffic] Commander [Mikail] Ali that the case was still under investigation and no cause had yet been determined,” Shahum said in a written account of the incident. While Ernst’s car was in the bike lane, “a steady stream of people biking on Folsom St. were blocked and forced to make sudden and sometimes-dangerous veers into the travel lane, which was busy with fast-moving car traffic during the peak of morning rush hour.”

One observer, who declined to be named, called Ernst’s behavior “insane.”

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Gascón’s “Message” Evolves, But Motorists’ Victims Still Await Justice

At the press conference held yesterday for the sentencing of Chris Bucchere, it was clear that District Attorney George Gascón’s rhetoric concerning traffic safety has evolved somewhat, toward a more accurate reflection of the dangers on city streets. In a departure from the “message to cyclists” that was his focus last month, Gascón emphasized that “traffic safety is a shared responsibility,” regardless of one’s mode of transport:

Photo: ABC 7

I know there are people in the community who don’t like to hear this, they like to blame one group or another. Some people will say, well, it’s only the motorists, if they were to behave differently, we would be safer. Other people will say, well if only the pedestrians would pay attention, we wouldn’t have these problems. And certainly, others would say, if only the cyclists were more courteous, we would not have as many accidents.

Regardless of the role you’re playing at that moment, whether you’re walking, you’re driving, or you’re cycling, if you’re violating the rules of the road, fatalities are foreseeable. And if they’re foreseeable, they are preventable.

On the last note, Gascón absolutely hit the mark. But he still didn’t acknowledge the reality that people operating multi-ton motor vehicles have a far greater capacity to inflict injury upon more vulnerable users of the road, and that the vast majority of pedestrians are injured by motorists.

The SFPD reported this week that 423 people were hit by drivers in the first five months of this year. Last year, the total was nearly 1,000. Yet, as we’ve reported, drivers are rarely prosecuted for killing pedestrians and bicycle riders as long as they’re sober and stay on the scene.

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