In 2013, after New Yorkers learned of the shoddy investigations their police department conducted after people were struck and killed by drivers (if police even bothered to conduct investigations at all), NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly pledged to overhaul the Accident Investigation Squad by increasing the number of officers in the unit, and expand the types of crashes that are investigated beyond those in which someone has died or is likely to die. Kelly even agreed to change the name of the unit to the Collision Investigation Squad.
"In the past, the term 'accident' has sometimes given the inaccurate impression or connotation that there is no fault or liability associated with a specific event," Kelly wrote in a letter to the City Council. But according to the New York Times, five years later, the CIS has fewer investigators and investigates fewer crashes than it did in 2013, despite Mayor Bill de Blasio's Vision Zero initiative.
"Last year, the squad investigated 380 crashes, down from 466 in 2013," the Times reports. "The squad now has 24 officers, two fewer than in 2013. A vast majority of crashes instead fall to patrol officers who have no special forensic training and file brief, two-page reports."
According to City data, there were 61,128 New Yorkers who were injured in crashes in 2017; 11,457 of them were pedestrians, 4,918 were cyclists, and the rest were motorists. There were 214 traffic fatalities reported in NYC in 2017, a significant decline from the 299 total traffic fatalities reported in 2013.
The Times story follows Bernadette Karna, who was seriously injured in 2016 after a hit and run driver struck her in Midtown and dragged her 50 feet. The detective assigned to her case found a suspect, but closed the case because there was not enough probable cause to make an arrest; the detective then retired, and Karna had to file a FOIL request to obtain the files of her investigation.
“It didn’t even occur to me that I’d have to do part of the detective work,” she told the paper. “They failed us. We didn’t get justice.”
No excuse for not opening the CIS files en masse. Instead, NYPD forces each victim and their lawyer to bring a FOIL to get it. Bernadette Karna's FOIL file is a perfect example of why NYPD wants to keep the CIS files hidden. Proof of explicit policy of shoddy investigations. https://t.co/oNAsSTQos4
— Steve Vaccaro (@BicyclesOnly) August 31, 2018
The NYPD told the Times "that the squad’s decreasing number of investigations indicates fewer serious crashes are happening," but the department's standard for assigning trained crash investigators to a case is still "critical injury," which means that the victim is receiving CPR or is in respiratory arrest, and is receiving some kind of life-saving treatment. This means that thousands of crashes involving serious injuries aren't being investigated.
Even in high profile cases, the NYPD botches the details given to the press—last year, after Dan Hanegby became the first cyclist killed on a Citi Bike, NYPD sources told reporters that Hanegby "swerved" into a bus; video evidence later disproved that assertion. The cases of Lauren Davis, James Gregg, and Jack Koval ended similarly.
The department pointed to a pilot program in Manhattan that assigns four officers to investigate crashes that the CIS investigators don't get to, and said they were expanding the pilot to Brooklyn.
Asked about the story on his weekly appearance on The Brian Lehrer Show Friday morning, de Blasio said "the evidence is quite clear" that "the NYPD is intensely committed to Vision Zero, both in terms of enforcement and investigation, and a huge amount of personnel and resources is going into that."
Pressed on whether he knew the CIS was investigating fewer crashes, the mayor replied,
"I want to see it before I comment on it, and hear NYPD's perspective. There's been no lack of NYPD resources being poured into Vision Zero, and if there's anywhere we need to do more, we will."