How NYPD Botched a Bike Fatality Investigation and Blamed the Victim
One of the appalling revelations at the City Council hearing on NYPD traffic safety policies was the rarity of full-scale investigations into crashes that injure or kill people. Unless the victim dies at the scene or is deemed likely to die, the police who are trained to look into traffic crashes won’t take the case.
Not only does this mean that thousands of injury-causing crashes are handled by precinct cops with no special training, it also keeps NYPD’s Accident Investigation Squad (AIS) from looking into some fatal crashes until the case is already stale.
In the case of Stefanos Tsigrimanis, a 29-year-old musician who was killed by a driver in Brooklyn in 2010, the AIS didn’t begin its investigation until nearly ten days after the crash. When they finally got around to it, AIS investigators produced a report that blamed Tsigrimanis — and no one else — for his own death.
Late in the afternoon on September 4, Tsigrimanis was biking north on Grand Avenue. As he crossed westbound Park Avenue, in the footprint of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, he was struck by Florida resident Archibald Torply, 50, driving a Nissan sedan. Tsigrimanis suffered head trauma and was rushed to the emergency room at Kings County Hospital. AIS officers responded initially, but they called off the investigation because an ER doctor determined that Tsigrimanis’s head injury was “non-life threatening,” according to a report in the investigative file [PDF]. (The file was obtained via a freedom of information request filed by attorney Steve Vaccaro. Streetsblog has redacted graphic descriptions from 911 transcripts in the file, in red. All other redactions were made by NYPD.)
At the hospital, doctors told Tsigrimanis’s girlfriend, Nicole Bergman, that he was in a coma and his chances for survival were slim. He did not recover after emergency brain surgery and died three days later, according to testimony Bergman gave to the City Council earlier this month.
But because police had called off the AIS investigation, no one collected photos from the day of the crash. Torply and another driver had been interviewed briefly, but that was it as far as witnesses. It wasn’t until September 13, when the medical examiner’s office informed police that Tsigrimanis had died, that AIS re-opened the case — nine days after the crash.
On October 20, 46 days after the crash, AIS went to the scene to look for additional witnesses and video cameras that might have recorded the collision. The only camera police found was pointed away from the crash site. Not surprisingly, no witnesses were located.
On October 31, Detective Gerard Sheehan spoke by phone with Torply and Sol Kleinman, the driver who was behind Torply at the time of the crash. According to their account, Torply was attempting to merge right at the moment of impact, while Kleinman said he did not see Tsigrimanis until he was in the air. Sheehan’s report reads as follows:
Male caller identified as Sol Kleinman states that Vehicle #1 was merging in front of his vehicle on Park Avenue. The man on the bicycle made a left turn from Grand Avenue onto Park Avenue causing the motorist to strike him. The caller states he didn’t see the bicyclist until he was already struck and airborne. Mr. Kleinman states that this collision was caused due to the bicyclist not stopping at the stop sign. Mr. Kleinman further states that he believed that the operator of vehicle #1 never saw the bicyclist, due to the fact that the motorists [sic] was yielding traffic to the right at the time.
Operator of Vehicle #1 [Torply] … states that he was merging into traffic from the west bound side of Park Avenue to the east bound side of Park Avenue. As vehicle #1 was merging onto the east bound roadway the bicyclist made a left turn from Grand Avenue, where there is a stop sign, in front of Vehicle #1. The operator states that the bicyclist appeared from left to right and was not seen until contact was made. There was little or no reaction time to stop the vehicle. When asked what was the cause of this collision Mr. Tosply [sic] stated that the bicyclist went through the stop sign located at Grand Ave and Park Ave.
Based on these interviews with Torply and Kleinman, Sheehan concluded that Tsigrimanis ran a stop sign and rode into Torply’s path. But Torply and Kleinman each admitted that they did not see Tsigrimanis until the moment of impact, so they couldn’t have observed whether he came to a stop or not. Nevertheless, nothing in the documents released by NYPD suggests the possibility of an alternate crash scenario. There are no references to driver speed.
On November 28, Sheehan (the same AIS detective who handled the investigation of the crash that killed cyclist Mathieu Lefevre) declared the case closed. NYPD’s public information office has not responded to Streetsblog’s request to interview Sheehan.
At last month’s City Council hearing, Vaccaro, who is representing Lefevre’s family, testified that by deploying the AIS only in cases where the victim is killed or believed likely to die, NYPD policy violates Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 603A, which in Vaccaro’s words requires that “a full-scale AIS-style investigation be made in all cases of fatality or serious physical harm.” As it stands, in cases like Tsigrimanis’s, AIS officers miss their best chance to gather evidence from the scene, while victims who suffer serious injury never get the attention of trained investigators at all.
“All I expected from the investigation was closure, and the two week delay cost me that,” Bergman told council members. “If the ‘story’ of the crash had been based on more than the word of the driver, and if the police had proceeded with a serious investigation regardless of what seems to be an arbitrary designation of likeliness of death, I could have some peace of mind, but as it is I am left wondering and unable to rid myself of these feelings of injustice and grief.”