Commentary: Get Cops out of Crash Investigations
8:45 AM PST on February 24, 2021
On Wednesday, the City Council takes up a bill that would remove central role of the NYPD in crash investigations and give that responsibility to the Department of Transportation, a bill that supporters say will increase the likelihood that crash analyses will lead to safer road designs. In addition, victims of crashes have long complained that the NYPD does a poor and insensitive job of investigating road violence. We asked a victim for her thoughts.
On June 8, 2016, I was run over by a reckless driver, while in the crosswalk with the light, as I crossed Third Ave at 41st Street in Manhattan on my way to work. The driver dragged me 50 feet and then fled, leaving me for dead.
Despite the horrors that I endured, nothing prepared me for the utter failure of the NYPD to investigate my crash. It is time that crash investigations no longer be the sole responsibility of the police but be moved mainly to the NYC Department of Transportation.
Surviving a crash is traumatic, exhaustive and life altering. My ribs were crushed, requiring surgical fixation with metal plates, and I had numerous other fractures to my back, shoulder, knee and foot. I was in physical therapy for nearly two years and unable to work for 20 months. I continue to require ongoing medical attention.
While I was recovering, I relied on the police to do a complete investigation.
However, my case wasn’t investigated thoroughly. The precinct detective assigned to my case went on a two-week vacation during the critical investigative period, and closed my case after four months. No charges were filed and he retired shortly thereafter without any further investigation. I was told very little and the video of the crash was lost by the NYPD. I waited over 19 months to receive the first detailed report of the crash. From the report, I learned that city cameras captured a car and plate, prompting the detective to question a person of interest.
It was only after The New York Times reported on my crash and I shared my story with the City Council that the NYPD Collision Investigation Squad reopened my case in 2018 — more than two years after my crash.
With the CIS reviewing the case, I was hopeful that the driver would be found and finally held accountable. To my surprise, the video of the crash was found and it was only then that the NYPD identified the correct SUV that ran over my body.
The owner of the identified vehicle was located and she admitted owning the SUV. It blew my mind to learn that an hour after my hit and run, the SUV was set on fire in Brooklyn.
Her daughter insured the vehicle and never spoke to the police. She didn’t respond to police phone calls or a house call. I was shocked to learn that she could ignore the detective, and the police search ended there.
Despite new information from the second investigation, I was utterly dismayed in June, 2019, when the NYPD closed the investigation without pressing any charges.
Whether it is a lack of resources to investigate and prosecute drivers or an apathy that these are just “accidents” is unclear. But what is obvious is that the justice system doesn’t bring justice to crash victims or hold reckless drivers accountable. My case was reopened only after political pressure. Still no one has been held accountable.
It is not acceptable that the driver can simply deny responsibility, and refuse to cooperate with police, without any consequences.
I will continue to do my best to live a full life, but the failure to hold the driver accountable after two investigations is preventing me from completely moving beyond the trauma.
There is a history of bias toward drivers by the NYPD and many crashes are not investigated. Some crash victims don’t even get a two-page report. Often, the NYPD blames the victims, only to later be forced to correct the record and show they did nothing wrong.
To prevent these crashes and lack of justice from happening to others, I strongly support moving the Collision Investigation Squad to the Department of Transportation, the lead agency in implementing Vision Zero. DOT must conduct a timely, detailed, systematic analysis at every crash site to understand what engineering and road design features could have prevented the crash or lessened its often devastating impact. But improving the investigation process is only one step. DOT must then take actionable steps after each serious crash to prevent more carnage on our streets.
On Wednesday, the City Council will hold a hearing about the proposal to move the Crash Investigation Squad from the NYPD to the DOT. I will be joining several other Families For Safe Streets members to testify in support of the proposal.
A recent Transportation Alternatives poll by Siena College found that 30 percent of New Yorkers have been injured in a crash like me. This crisis requires bold action. Let’s hope our leaders are up to the challenge.
Bernadette Karna is a member of Families for Safe Streets.
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While distracted/inattentive driving was a primary factor, the non-intuitive and dangerous center-running design almost certainly contributed