NYPD’s Jaywalking Enforcement Boondoggle

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Although the de Blasio administration’s Vision Zero plan to eliminate traffic fatalities does not specifically call for pedestrian traffic enforcement, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has made clear that individual precinct commanders have the discretion to do so if they determine it to be warranted.

Leaving aside the many good reasons that pedestrian ticketing should be considered NYPD’s lowest traffic enforcement priority, it now appears that many NYPD officers (and some precinct commanders) do not even understand the traffic laws that apply to New York City pedestrians. The NYPD’s jaywalking enforcement boondoggle points to the need for comprehensive in-service training for NYPD officers on pedestrian, cyclist, and motor vehicle traffic laws.

After three Upper West Side pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles within a short period of time and within two blocks of Broadway and 96th Street, the commander of the 24th Precinct apparently decided that pedestrian traffic enforcement was needed. (Only one of the three pedestrians killed, Samantha Lee, was alleged to have violated traffic laws).

Building on this disconnect between the problem and the proposed solution, officers of the 24th Precinct proceeded to cite pedestrians for violation of New York State Vehicle & Traffic Law Section 1152, “Crossing at other than crosswalks.” This law does not apply in New York City — NYC DOT has superseded it (see page 16 of this pdf, 34 RCNY Section 4-02(e)) under New York City’s delegated authority to legislate with respect to the right of way of vehicles and pedestrians.

Making matters worse, the officers issued summonses returnable to New York City Criminal Court — even though a violation of traffic law was alleged. What did the Criminal Court do with the summonses it was asked to adjudicate for violation of a non-applicable, non-criminal traffic violation?  It dismissed them — of course:

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This week’s news brings reports that the 94th Precinct is following the lead of the 24th Precinct, doing pedestrian enforcement on McGuinness Boulevard in Greenpoint. What are the pedestrians being cited for? Violation of the inapplicable VTL 1126, which is also superseded by local law. Where are the summonses returnable? New York City Criminal Court. Which precinct will be next?

As many cyclists have already learned, many NYPD officers don’t know enough about the traffic laws that apply to cyclists or pedestrians. Some think the speed limit for cyclists is 15 MPH. Some don’t know that a cyclist can leave a left-hand bike lane to make a right turn. Some even think it is OK to block the bike lane with a squad car, then summons cyclists detouring around the hazard with “riding out of the bike lane” tickets!

I’ll be first to admit that figuring out traffic rules for cyclists — or pedestrians — is often more complicated than one would think. But understanding the separate rules for cyclists and pedestrians is critical to effective, fair traffic enforcement, because in many respects the obligations of motorists are defined in terms of the duty to avoid striking or coming too close to vulnerable street users, or to refrain from traveling at “imprudent speeds” in their midst. Doesn’t a major enforcement initiative like Vision Zero require an in-service traffic training for all NYPD officers responsible for implementing and managing it?

Of course, New York City’s pedestrian traffic laws are more restrictive than the superseded state law that NYPD has been enforcing. The New York City Traffic Rules prohibit pedestrians from crossing many streets except within a crosswalk (see page 19 of this pdf, 34 RCNY Section 4-04(c)(2)). This rule is deeply unfair to pedestrians, because many New York City intersections have their crosswalks worn away, or were never striped in the first place. Take a look, for example, at the intersection in Ravenswood where Ryo Oyamada was struck by police.

If NYPD will allow its precinct commanders to treat pedestrian traffic enforcement as a priority, it must enforce only those laws that apply, and issue summonses that have a chance of being adjudicated in an appropriate forum.  That is the only way that judges and other decision makers will have an opportunity to rule on New York City’s draconian but unenforced pedestrian traffic laws. Anything else is just harassment.