A little more than a year after a shocking city council hearing laid bare the inadequacies of the NYPD's treatment of crash investigations, the department has announced sweeping changes in policy.
The NYPD will now investigate crashes in which victims have been critically injured—not just likely to die—and will confer with medical professionals to make that determination. More personnel will be assigned to the NYPD's Highway Division Accident Investigation Squad, which currently has a staff of 23 to investigate the dozens of crashes occurring in the city each day, and the name of the unit itself will be changed 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," NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly writes in a letter to City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca announcing the changes.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne tells The New York Times (which broke the news) that the department "had already begun to respond to instances where the injuries were serious but not fatal." Law enforcement officials told the paper that "dozens" of investigations based on the new rules have been conducted, leading to criminal charges in several cases.
Last month, police investigated an incident in which an elderly woman was critically injured on the Bowery by a minivan. Though she was not "likely" to die, members of AIS looked at surveillance footage of the crash at a local bank, and held the driver at the scene for several hours as they continued their investigation.
The Post adds that $400,000 in state money from DUI fines will help pay for the additional investigations, as well as new equipment and "3-D imaging centers" to assist in the work.
"Today’s announcement marks the end of that “Dead or Likely to Die Rule," Transportation Alternatives said in a statement, calling the changes "a major victory for every New Yorker."
"While we won’t rest until the City enacts a zero tolerance policy for dangerous driving, we applaud the NYPD for taking this necessary step to bring justice to our streets and give dangerous driving victims and their families the full investigations they deserve."
Steve Vaccaro, an attorney and activist, said he was pleased with the department's actions, especially the requirement that NYPD investigators confer with EMS—"They're qualified, they do this for a living. You won't have the NYPD just going to the hospital and approaching various healthcare personnel with the question, 'Is the patient likely to die?' Someone engaged in a life-saving effort is not going to answer that if there is any chance."
But Vaccaro noted that Kelly's stipulation that the new CIS will be "notified to respond" in cases of critical injury still depends wholly on the responding officers themselves. "In the case of Clara Heyworth, AIS was notified in that case by officers on the scene, and AIS decided that they would not respond." While the notification provision is good, "the devil is in the details."
Vaccaro believes that an upcoming City Council hearing scheduled for April 29 to discuss the four crash investigation bills that have lingered, combined with the heartbreaking, high-profile, traffic fatalities of recent weeks forced Kelly's hand. "Unfortunately the only way to break out of this sort of business as usual approach is to dramatize the human cost of the current system. Through a very unfortunate series of tragedies, we're finally getting some action from City Council and the police."
You can read Commissioner Kelly's letter to Councilmember Vacca below.
[UPDATE] Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., who sits on the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee, calls Kelly's letter "a great start."
"But we also need the unit itself to be beefed up. And we need more of the use of the laws that exist. For instance there's a crime called reckless endangerment, when you recklessly create a risk of injury to another person. I spoke to the police department, and I am not aware of one instance where that crime has been used against motorists. That's absurd! I mean, if a motorist backs through a busy intersection, whether or not he hits somebody, he should be charged with a crime. But the police right now are charging all of these incidents as traffic violations and that's ridiculous."
Councilmember Brad Lander, the lead sponsor of the Crash Investigation Reform Act, released a statement praising Kelly's letter but noting that "If these policies were already in effect, the crashes that claimed the lives of Clara Heyworth and Stefanos Tsigrimanis would likely have gotten a serious investigation."
Kelly Letter by
Additional reporting by Garth Johnston