Why Doesn’t NYPD Apply “Broken Windows” to Traffic Violence?

Reading Heather Mac Donald’s impassioned defense of the race-neutral character of NYPD’s stop and frisk program in City Journal this weekend, I was struck by the following statement of an NYPD precinct commander, Inspector Christopher McCormack, exhorting an officer to be more “proactive” in making stops:

“The point here is that 99 percent of the people in this community are great, hardworking people who deserve to walk to the train stop, walk to their car, walk to the store [without fear of getting shot].”

This statement has been put forward as evidence in the federal class action lawsuit Floyd v. City of New York. There, plaintiffs allege that NYPD’s stop and frisk program racially targets minority youth based on tenuous (or no) evidence. Defenders of the program contend that systematic “proactive” stops in high-crime neighborhoods drive crime rates down. The stops have been characterized as a form of “broken windows” policing, through which the targeting of lesser crimes creates an atmosphere of vigilance that is thought to discourage more serious crime.

Why no “broken windows” for traffic violence? Transportation Alternatives and Streetsblog first posed this question back in 2009, and persistent advocacy and pressure since then have led to some progress. NYPD recently announced that more crashes would be investigated, and that it would use the more neutral term “collision” to describe these incidents rather than “accidents.” But these changes affect only cases in which the victim is critically injured. In practical terms, NYPD’s announced 50 percent increase in investigators ostensibly would increase crash investigations from the current ~300 to ~450 per year — even though state law mandates that NYPD investigate all of the 3,000-plus NYC crashes each year that result in serious or fatal injury, and NYPD is currently facing a lawsuit brought by my firm to fulfill that mandate.

Do these modest improvements signal a more fundamental change in NYPD’s bias against “suspecting criminality” in cases of traffic violence? One reason for that bias is the traditional requirement that conduct, to be treated as criminal, must be accompanied by an “evil mind” — an intent or at least an awareness of doing harm. And yet, even in hit-and-run cases, where criminality usually by definition exists, NYPD still generally fails to investigate offenders or refer for prosecution unless the case also involves death, or more recently, “critical” injury.  Why do crimes committed with cars so often get a “pass” from NYPD?

Last week brought news of an extremely clear case of NYPD’s double-standard regarding crimes committed with cars, that of John Kelly, who is now a client of our firm. While riding in a bike lane a block from his home, John was struck twice by the driver of a van. The second hit knocked John from his bike and sent him up onto the hood, where he clung for his life as the driver accelerated, crushing John’s bicycle under the van’s wheel. The driver made eye contact with his John throughout the episode, leaving no doubt that this was an intentional assault. After John escaped from the hood, the driver fled the scene.

Miraculously, John’s injuries were minor. Police were summoned to the scene, where they received accounts of the assault from John and several witnesses. Yet the officers’ only response was to complete an “accident report” — what “accident” was that? — and to close the case without any investigation. Apparently “suspecting no criminality,” NYPD ignored strong evidence supporting at least three felony charges (second degree criminal mischief, first degree reckless endangerment, and second degree assault), as well as two misdemeanor charge (reckless driving and  hit-and-run).

John’s case is just one of the more extreme examples of the neglect by NYPD of traffic violence when it is unaccompanied by either driver impairment, or extremely serious injuries coupled with leaving the scene. In January of this year, a hit-and-run driver ran a stop sign in Long Island City and broke the leg of a cyclist, who has since retained our firm. The driver stopped and spoke with his victim before driving off, clearly aware that he had caused injury.  Although the cyclist memorized several characters on the driver’s license plate, as well as the make, color, and model of the vehicle, police responding to the crash scene told the cyclist that there would be no investigation, and none in fact has been conducted.

Last September, a hit-and-run driver sideswiped a cyclist while unlawfully trying to pass her in the Second Avenue “sharrow” lane, breaking her arm. Police refused to obtain red light camera footage that might have identified the driver, forcing me to spend months trying to obtain the footage through the Freedom of Information Law that police could have easily obtained.

Our firm can cite many other similar examples of NYPD failing to investigate hit-and-run drivers who threaten the lives, seriously injure, or destroy the property of cyclists. These are cases in which criminality should not only be suspected, but in which police arrive at the scene to find it has almost already been proven. (As Bike Snob has observed, the investigation of such cases “would be like a nine second episode of ‘Law and Order.’” NYPD’s disparate treatment of gun violence and traffic violence — which kill and injure comparable numbers of New Yorkers each year — is patently bad policy and unfair to crash victims. To paraphrase Commander McCormack’s words: people deserve to walk — or bike — to the train stop, the store, their job or their school without fear of getting killed. It’s time for NYPD to stop ignoring the routine traffic crimes that are the “broken windows” threatening New Yorkers’ personal security on city streets.