Vaccaro: NYPD Coerces Injured Hit-and-Run Victims to Not Pursue Charges

The City Council transportation committee met today to gather testimony on NYPD hit-and-run crash investigations, but NYPD didn’t send anyone to the hearing. The committee also took up a bill that would codify updates to DOT’s innovative Street Design Manual.

Family members of hit-and-run victim Dante Dominguez, with Council Members Rosie Mendez and Leroy Comrie. Photo: ##http://www.qchron.com/editions/queenswide/flushing-hit-and-run-inspires-council-bill/article_232113e3-a3d4-5ca0-97dd-f26b871953ca.html##Queens Chronicle##

Family members of hit-and-run victim Dante Dominguez, with City Council Members Rosie Mendez and Leroy Comrie. The driver who killed Dominguez was not caught. His brother says NYPD did not start its investigation until a week after the crash. Photo: Queens Chronicle

Intro 1055 would require NYPD to report to the council every two years on hit-and-run crashes that result in serious injury or death, including the number of crashes per precinct, and to provide “a brief description of what steps were taken to investigate each such incident.” Bill sponsor Leroy Comrie said today that hit-and-run fatalities have increased by 31 percent since 2010, with 47 deaths in 2012.

“The families want to know if NYPD has thoroughly pursued all avenues of evidence in actively finding the perpetrators that claimed their loved ones,” said Comrie. “They deserve to know the status of their investigation and what they can realistically expect to happen. And the public needs to know that these crimes are not simply swept under the rug, but actively pursued.”

Comrie also wants NYPD to collect video evidence within a five block radius of hit-and-run crashes, though this would take the form of a resolution, rather than a law, since the council believes it can not force the department to change the way it handles crash investigations.

During testimony, Juan Martinez, general counsel for Transportation Alternatives, said hit-and-run collisions are “perhaps the most callous criminal act that a driver can commit.” Of some 300 investigations by the Collision Investigation Squad in 2012, Martinez said, around 60 involved hit-and-run drivers. Of those, only 15 resulted in an arrest.

Martinez said more oversight would lead to better enforcement. “Government can’t manage what it can’t measure,” he said.

Attorney Steve Vaccaro joined Martinez in suggesting changes to the hit-and-run bill. Martinez recommended crash data be shared with the public as well as the council, and Vaccaro said reports should come once or twice a year, instead of every other year. Said Vaccaro: ”I think this data is going to show there’s a big problem here.”

Vaccaro testified that, based on his firm’s experience with clients and other crash victims who seek guidance over the phone, New York City police officers often refuse to take a report on a hit-and-run unless an injured victim agrees to be transported to a hospital by ambulance. This can be a deterrent for victims who have no health insurance, or who are not aware of coverage available to them through the Motor Vehicle Accident Indemnification Corporation, which offers compensation for crashes caused by uninsured drivers. Many times, Vaccaro said, victims are traumatized to the extent that they don’t realize they need medical care until hours after a crash.

Shockingly, in some instances Vaccaro said NYPD officers threaten not to include a perpetrator’s license plate number in a report, if it is known to police, unless an injured victim agrees to not pursue a criminal case. “Hit-and-run is a criminal offense that needs to be treated as one,” said Vaccaro. “Someone should not be forced to choose between insurance and compensation for their injuries and seeing the driver who injured them and then drove off from the scene brought to justice.”

Vaccaro said the Collision Investigation Squad is insulated from scrutiny, and should be made accessible and accountable to the public. Martinez noted that NYPD has a $4 billion budget, and said the lack of resources devoted to crash investigations is a deliberate choice that reflects departmental priorities.

Council members also heard from Patrick Dominguez, whose brother Dante Dominguez was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Flushing in November 2012. Dominguez said the investigation into his brother’s death did not begin until a week after the crash. The driver was not caught.

“When my brother was killed we felt like we had nobody,” Dominguez said. “Not even a cop came to my mother and said, you know, ‘We’re working on it.’ Not even that.”

Dominguez was killed in Peter Koo’s council district. Koo is a co-sponsor of the hit-and-run bill and attended today’s hearing.

After hearing multiple speakers testify to NYPD’s indifference and hostility toward crash victims, Vacca assured Dominguez that the council is “holding DOT’s feet to the fire” on speeding and pedestrian safety.

Comrie was receptive to recommendations from Martinez and Vaccaro, and said he wants to see the hit-and-run bill passed before he leaves office at the end of the year. Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez said Albany should toughen penalties for hit-and-run. A loophole in state law gives motorists who have been drinking an incentive to flee the scene of a crash, and so far state legislators’ efforts to reform the law have failed.

Assistant commissioner Kate Slevin testified in support of a bill that would require DOT to update its Street Design Manual every four years. First published in 2009, the manual has provided guidance for the street redesigns DOT has implemented since Janette Sadik-Khan was named commissioner. An update was issued in October.

Intro 1114 would basically codify the inclusion of complete streets in the DOT repertoire. The bill says the manual must be made available to other agencies, community boards, electeds, and the public. Council Member Dan Garodnick, the bill’s sponsor, said streets redesigned since 2005 have seen a 34 percent decrease in traffic fatalities. Everyone who testified on the bill today spoke favorably of the manual, though Noel Hidalgo of Code for America said DOT should be required to release underlying data to make it more useful to software developers.

Another bit of news from today: James Vacca, a champion of bills increasing community board oversight of street safety measures who has dedicated much of his time and energy as head of the transportation committee to micro-managing DOT, is flabbergasted that DOT obtains approval from community boards before installing speed humps.

After requesting a speed hump in his district, Vacca learned that DOT protocol mandates community board approval, unless the requested location is near a school. “This is unacceptable,” Vacca said. Vacca told Slevin DOT should simply notify affected community boards by letter and give them five days to object before installing a speed hump.

“This is adding another layer of postponement for speed bump installation,” said Vacca. ”We’re looking to do things expeditiously.”