Ariel Russo, 4, Killed by Unlicensed Teen and NYPD Pursuit Protocol

The driver who allegedly struck and killed 4-year-old Ariel Russo and injured her grandmother during a police chase on the Upper West Side Tuesday morning has been charged with manslaughter. But if authorities and the media place 100 percent of the blame on a kid who tried taking the family car to school, a conviction won’t make the public any safer.

Ariel Russo

NYPD says Franklin Reyes, 17, was stopped on 89th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues for driving across several lanes to make a turn, according to the Times and the Post. As officers approached the Nissan SUV, Reyes “sped off” north on Amsterdam Avenue, and the officers “jumped back in their car and gave chase,” the Times said.

Reyes, who has a learner’s permit and had taken his family’s vehicle without permission, drove for eight blocks at unknown speeds before he attempted a left turn onto 97th Street at an estimated speed of 34 mph, officials said. At some point, according to reports, Reyes jumped the curb. From the Times:

The S.U.V. pinned the victims against the security gate of a corner restaurant, the police said. As the driver reversed in an attempt to get away, he may have struck one or both of the victims again, the police said. He crashed into a parked car on the other side of the street, they said.

FDNY said responders arrived eight minutes after the crash. “It took way too long to get an ambulance here,” said Steven Davis, a witness and volunteer EMT who lives on the corner of 97th and Amsterdam, to the Times. Ariel was pronounced dead at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt. Her grandmother, 58-year-old Katia Gutierrez, was in stable condition, the Post said.

The crash occurred at approximately 8:15 a.m., when neighborhood sidewalks are packed with kids. Ariel and Gutierrez were struck outside Holy Name School, where Ariel attended pre-K. She had a younger brother.

Reports say Reyes was charged with manslaughter and vehicular manslaughter. Since he had not yet been arraigned, as of this morning Cy Vance’s office could not confirm the charges.

The Post says Reyes told police he took the car to drive to school, and fled because he didn’t want to be caught without a licensed driver. A strong argument could be made that teenagers have no place behind the wheel in New York City — and, for that matter, that carmakers should be required to equip vehicles with technology that makes them accessible only to licensed drivers — but we’ll save those issues for later.

The Times notes that NYPD guidelines “instruct officers to call off a chase if the risk involved in continuing is greater than the danger posed to the public in letting the person get away.” The NYPD Patrol Guide states that, “Department policy requires that a vehicle pursuit be terminated whenever the risks to uniformed members of the service and the public outweigh the danger to the community if [the] suspect is not immediately apprehended.”

It is well established that police don’t know what to expect when they make a traffic stop. It’s also known that traffic stops often lead to arrests for other crimes. And by keeping in place a policy that allows officers to decide whether or not to initiate vehicular pursuits on city streets, NYPD bears at least some responsibility for what happens when chases occur.

In this case, as long as they had the plate number, police should have been able to locate the vehicle and the driver with little difficulty. After the death of Karen Schmeer, who like Ariel Russo was killed during an NYPD chase in the 24th Precinct, Deputy Inspector Kathleen O’Reilly said that even the shooting of a police officer probably should not warrant a vehicular pursuit. “We’ve got ballistics. We’ve got evidence,” O’Reilly said. “We’ll track them down.”

It goes without saying that the driver in this crash is at fault, and that he should not have had access to car keys. But the public should be able to trust the police to make better decisions than an adolescent male.

As it stands, police have to make a snap judgment. A fleeing driver might have just murdered someone, or he might have shoplifted cold medicine. In this instance, they made the wrong call. And a little girl is dead.

But again, you don’t see electeds or the media calling for NYPD to change its chase procedures, and you don’t see Mayor Michael Bloomberg or Commissioner Ray Kelly owning up to the department’s role in this completely preventable tragedy. Until that happens, regardless of the outcome of this case, the next one is inevitable.