In July, less than a week after a hit-and-run driver struck and killed Queens man Matthew von Ohlen in a Williamsburg bike lane, the NYPD's 90th Precinct tweeted that officers had tracked down the black Chevy Camaro allegedly involved. That car identification was the most recent public update on von Ohlen's case. No one has been arrested to date, and no suspects identified. The NYPD has repeatedly refused to say why the driver of the recovered vehicle has not been charged.
The status of von Ohlen's case is typical, according to new statistics from the NYPD. Of 38 fatal hit-and-run crashes between July 2015 and June 2016—the most up-to-date statistics available—13, or 34 percent, have resulted in an arrest. In 22 hit-and-run crashes where the victim was "seriously injured" by the NYPD's estimation, 14 arrests have been made.
Taking all fatal and injurious crashes into account—including those that resulted in what the NYPD classified as non-serious "personal injuries"—the NYPD has made 450 arrests in 5,066 crashes. That's an arrest rate of about 8 percent.
The fiscal year 2016 hit-and-run data was published late this summer in accordance with a new law requiring the NYPD to issue annual reports on the number of hit-and-run complaints received, compared to the number of arrests made.
Mayor de Blasio pledged to catch and punish more hit-and-run drivers during his annual Vision Zero check-in last December, and recently passed legislation doubling hit-and-run fines. But this is the first time the NYPD has been compelled to publicly track its progress on hit-and-run cases, according to the office of City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer, who sponsored the legislation.
"New data released under my bill, the Justice for Hit and Run Victims Act, shows that NYPD has failed to make an arrest in more than 90% of cases where a driver has hit a person with their car, then left the scene," Van Bramer said in a statement Tuesday. "That is an outrage. If you hit someone with your car and then drive away, it's a crime and should be treated as such."
For comparison, the arrest rate for murder and non-negligent manslaughter in 2015 was 86 percent—308 arrests out of 335 incidents.
"I'm glad to see that the information is now being published," said attorney Steve Vaccaro, who primarily represents cyclists and pedestrians injured and killed by reckless drivers. "It's as we knew and suspected—that hit and run is the most neglected serious crime going on in New York City today."
Mayoral spokesman Austin Finan stressed that the Collision Investigation Squad focuses its resources on the most serious crashes—where the arrest rates are higher—allocating crashes deemed less serious to precinct detectives.
"Property damage incidents—which comprise nearly 90% of all hit-and-run cases—and non-life-threatening injuries are investigated by detectives," he said. "Putting CIS investigators on those cases would come at the expense of fully investigating hit and runs that seriously injure or take a life. Targeting the most severe cases and the worst offenders is the way to make our streets safer."
But Vaccaro said that he's troubled by how the NYPD defines a "serious" injury.
Citing his experience litigating against the NYPD on behalf of hit-and-run victims, he said the non-serious category "may include everything from scrapes and bruises and road rash, all the way up to any serious injury that doesn't involve the person needing life support. You can lose a limb and not need life support."
"If you are killed, if you are catastrophically injured, [NYPD] resources are applied," he added. "I really applaud the fact that the serious injury hit-and-runs have almost a 50 percent arrest rate. It means these cases aren't intractable."
In July, 58-year-old hit-and-run driver Jairam Budhu was arrested and charged with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and assault after he ignored a stop sign in South Ozone Park, killing a woman sitting in her Sedan nearby, and seriously injuring her daughter. "With effort, perpetrators can be arrested," Vaccaro said. "So why is it that there is an 8 percent arrest rate with the less serious injuries?"
The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for clarity on its methodology for determining what constitutes a "serious injury."
While the NYPD wasn't obligated to release statistics on FY 2015, NYPD Inspector Dennis Fulton testified last December that there were 48 hit-and-run crashes in 2015 that resulted in death or "serious injury," with 28 arrests. Also last year, there were about 4,000 hit-and-runs that resulted in lesser injuries. According to a December 2015 Transportation Alternatives report, fewer than 1 percent of these drivers were charged with a crime (advocates have also blamed the borough District Attorneys for this statistic).
"This year, by Labor Day, we had surpassed the number of hit-and-runs we saw in all of 2015," said Transportation Alternatives spokesman Brian Zumhagen. "The Department needs to expand the CIS significantly with more officers to investigate these crashes."
Vaccaro suggested that the NYPD use the penal code definition of "serious personal injury" to determine which hit-and-run cases get CIS investigations. According to that code, "protracted impairment of health or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ" falls into the serious injury category.
One of Vaccaro's past clients, 40-year-old Dulcie Canton, was struck by a hit-and-run driver while riding her bike in Bushwick in August of 2014. "The guy broke my right shoulder," Canton told Gothamist shortly after the crash. "And I had a concussion and a really bad sprained left ankle." Her case never got a thorough investigation, according to Vaccaro.
In von Ohlen's case, a fatality, CIS is investigating. Investigations into fatal hit-and-run crashes can take weeks and even months for myriad reasons. "It's like any crime," Vaccaro said. "Criminals don't make it easy to catch them."
"But," he added, "I don't think that the NYPD should decide that only the need for life support calls for more resources."
Former NYPD Commissioner Bratton told advocates this spring that that while the NYPD's Collision Investigation Squad (CIS) is faced with more traffic incidents than it could possibly investigate, additional CIS officers were not part of his 2016 budget plans. "We will not be increasing significantly the number of [CIS] investigators," he said. "What we have expanded is [their] responsibility." Indeed, until two years ago, CIS only had the jurisdiction to investigate crashes that resulted in death.