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Posts from the "Police Misconduct" Category

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New York’s Top Court Exhibits Depraved Indifference to Pedestrians’ Lives

Court of Appeals Judges Jenny Rivera, Sheila Abdus-Salaam, Robert S. Smith, Susan P. Reid, and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman ruled that Jose Maldonado showed concern for others’ safety as he sped through Greenpoint in a stolen van, driving against traffic and striking pedestrian Violetta Krzyzak with enough force to catapult her body 55 yards through the air.

Court of Appeals Judges Jenny Rivera, Sheila Abdus-Salaam, Robert S. Smith, Susan P. Reid, and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman ruled that Jose Maldonado showed concern for others’ safety as he sped through Greenpoint in a stolen van, driving against traffic and striking pedestrian Violetta Krzyzak with enough force to catapult her body 55 yards through the air. Prosecutors warn that the decision will affect future cases against drivers who kill.

In a decision that may hinder future prosecutions of killer drivers, New York’s highest court rejected the murder conviction of a car thief who fatally struck a Brooklyn pedestrian during a high-speed NYPD chase — ruling that the defendant showed concern for others’ safety by swerving around vehicles and people as he attempted to elude police.

The ruling drew a rebuke from Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who is nationally known for seeking serious penalties for motorists who kill.

On the afternoon of April 27, 2009, Jose Maldonado drove a stolen minivan through the streets of Greenpoint. With police in pursuit, in apparent violation of NYPD protocol, Maldonado ran red lights and sped against oncoming traffic while weaving between lanes. When he narrowly missed a pedestrian who leapt from his path, Maldonado kept going. He hit 37-year-old Violetta Krzyzak at Manhattan Avenue and India Street. According to the Court of Appeals, Krzyzak “landed over 165 feet, or almost one block, away from the point of collision.” She died at the scene.

Maldonado did not slow down after striking Krzyzak. He crashed into parked vehicles five blocks away, court documents say, and was tackled by witnesses as he tried to flee on foot.

Maldonado was convicted at trial of murder because he acted with “depraved indifference” to human life, but the Court of Appeals this month reduced the top charge against him to second degree manslaughter [PDF]. “[W]e conclude that the evidence was legally insufficient to support defendant’s conviction for depraved indifference murder,” wrote Judge Jenny Rivera for the majority, “because the circumstances of this high-speed vehicular police chase do not fit within the narrow category of cases wherein the facts evince a defendant’s utter disregard for human life.”

Whereas Maldonado’s murder conviction carried a sentence of 15 years to life, second degree manslaughter is a class C felony, with sentences ranging from one to 15 years in prison. Maldonado’s re-sentencing date was not yet scheduled at this writing.

“The Court of Appeals’ decision in Maldonado is distressing to anyone who recognizes that a wildly reckless driver, bent on fleeing the police, can be absolutely depraved toward innocent people that are in his way,” said Rice in a written statement. “It’s time for the legislature to address the issue and make it clear that the outrageously dangerous driving represented in Maldonado is not simply reckless, it is depraved. And when someone dies as a result, it should be nothing short of murder.”

Rice and her chief vehicular crimes prosecutor Maureen McCormick have for years warned that poorly-written state statutes are leading to case law that favors killer motorists. But weak laws aren’t the only cause for concern. Though the Maldonado ruling was not unanimous, five of the seven most powerful judges in New York State exhibited a troubling readiness to make excuses for a driver who they acknowledge “did not brake” after slamming a speeding van into an innocent bystander.

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NYPD Lied About 2009 Chase That Killed Brooklyn Pedestrian Violetta Krzyzak

The aftermath of the police chase that killed Violetta Krzyzak, which NYPD said didn’t happen. Photo: Graham T. Beck

Aftermath of the police chase that killed Violetta Krzyzak, which NYPD said didn’t happen. Photo: Graham T. Beck

Court documents indicate police were driving in pursuit of a man when he struck and killed a Greenpoint pedestrian five years ago, contrary to NYPD denials and confirming statements from witnesses who told Streetsblog the crash occurred during a high-speed chase.

Jose Maldonado was driving a stolen minivan when he passed an unmarked police car near the intersection of Graham Avenue and Jackson Street on the afternoon of April 27, 2009, according to a recent ruling from the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court. As Officer Steven Truglio approached the van on foot, Maldonado drove off. Police sped after Maldonado as he ran red lights and went against traffic on one-way streets.

“It is undisputed that defendant consistently drove well above the 30 miles per hour speed limit and violated numerous traffic rules as he attempted to evade capture by the police,” court documents say. “The police followed with lights and sirens activated as defendant drove towards Manhattan Avenue, a major thoroughfare and commercial hub.”

Maldonado drove north on Manhattan Avenue, swerving head-on toward southbound traffic as he passed other drivers. He “did not even apply his brakes” as a pedestrian dove out of his path at Milton Street, and continued running lights and driving in the wrong lane as he approached Manhattan Avenue at India Street, where he hit Violetta Krzyzak.

Her body flew into the air upon impact and landed over 165 feet, or almost one block, away from the point of collision. A witness who saw the moment of impact estimated that defendant was driving at 70 m.p.h., while another bystander thought his speed was closer to 80 m.p.h.

Maldonado “did not brake” after striking Krzyzak. He crashed into parked vehicles five blocks away, at Manhattan Avenue and Dupont Street, and was finally tackled by witnesses when he tried to flee on foot.

Krzyzak, 37, died at the scene. She was married and had a 20-year-old daughter, according to the Greenpoint Gazette.

Graham T. Beck, who came upon the scene the after the crash, wrote a series of stories for Streetsblog with quotes from multiple witnesses who saw the white minivan being chased by police. But weeks later at a community council meeting, Deputy Inspector Dennis Fulton, then the commanding officer of the 94th Precinct, said there was no pursuit.

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Cyclist Says She Was Nearly Hit, Then Harassed, by NYPD in Upper Manhattan

While cyclists in Midtown, the West Village and other areas have reported incidents of NYPD entrapment and wrongful ticketing this summer, a resident of Upper Manhattan says she was almost struck by officers in a marked cruiser, who then yelled obscenities at her.

Our tipster, whom we’ll call Joan, is an experienced NYC cyclist. She was riding through Hamilton Heights, in the 30th Precinct, at 6:30 on the morning of July 31, on her way to Central Park. Here is her account, edited for style and clarity:

I was riding my bike south on St. Nicholas Avenue, just after crossing 145th Street, with the green light, [when] a cop car double-parked on the right made a u-turn in front of me — apparently without looking or he would’ve seen my bright orange jersey in his mirror. Thankfully I just barely missed a collision. After passing I heard the cop yelling so I stopped and turned around. The cop in the passenger seat called me a “Jackass” three times, gave me the finger, and the driver took off.

Joan got the car number — 2516 — but did not see if the vehicle was assigned to the 30th Precinct. An Internet search turns up a 2009 photo of NYPD car 2516, but it’s an older Crown Vic which could by now be out of service. The cruiser in the photo is from the Transit Bureau Manhattan Task Force.

Joan has reached out to Community Board 10, and has an interview scheduled with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

“I’m appalled by this,” Joan says. “It’s bad enough that we have to deal with this kind of driving and aggression from motorists. But to experience this from the police has made me very afraid.”

Streetsblog has a message in with NYPD about this incident. We’ll report if we hear back. We’ll also keep in touch with Joan concerning her CCRB complaint.

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DA: Cop Who Killed Bronx Pedestrian Had History of Drinking and Driving

The Riverdale Press revealed last week what should have been a bombshell allegation of the sort that is splashed on front pages across the city. But it wasn’t picked up by other media outlets, nor was it the focus of the Riverdale Press story.

Prosecutors say former NYPD detective Kevin Spellman caused a crash in Yonkers and was disciplined for driving a police car under the influence before he killed pedestrian Drane Nikac. Image: WABC

Former NYPD detective Kevin Spellman is on trial for vehicular homicide for allegedly mowing down 70-year-old Bronx pedestrian Drane Nikac while driving drunk in a government vehicle three years ago this month. According to the Riverdale Press, prosecutors from the office of Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson have sought to introduce evidence that the crash that killed Nikac wasn’t the first incident in which Spellman was caught drinking and driving.

The first incident the District Attorney’s Office would want to introduce, according to the transcript, took place on Oct. 14, 2004. Mr. Spellman, who was off duty at the time, was allegedly driving the wrong direction on a one-way street in a police vehicle.

Civilians reported him to police after they said they noticed him staggering into a bodega to buy beer, smelling of alcohol and with bloodshot eyes. Two other police officers had been in the car with Mr. Spellman.

He wasn’t arrested but he pleaded guilty to internal charges, forfeiting 26 vacation days and accepting an eight-day unpaid suspension and 10 months of modified duty.

According to the transcript, the second incident took place on Aug. 2, 1997. It was a sunny, clear summer day and Mr. Spellman allegedly ran a stop sign in Yonkers, striking a family of three. The father asked the police officer at the scene to perform a Breathalyzer test on Mr. Spellman but the cop refused, according to the transcript. The matter was eventually settled in a civil suit, she said.

Mr. Spellman allegedly made a similar admittance on the day of this accident as the one he made in 2009. He said he didn’t see the 1989 Plymouth Sundance he hit.

These allegations, if true, are nothing short of scandalous: An NYPD detective evades arrest after causing a crash, receives a slap on the wrist years later for driving a police vehicle under the influence, and finally kills a bystander, again while driving drunk in a government-issued car. (Prosecutors from Johnson’s office, understandably, could not comment on the ongoing Spellman trial.)

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Greater Atlanta Continues to Treat Walking Like a Crime

Despite the national outrage over the Raquel Nelson case, officials in metro Atlanta continue to treat pedestrians like criminals.

Simply crossing the street can, and often does, land Atlanta area pedestrians a citation. Photo: Creative Loafing

Last Wednesday, a 35-year-old woman was hospitalized after being struck by a vehicle while attempting to cross a road in northwest Atlanta. A local Fox affiliate reports that the woman suffered injuries and is in “stable” condition at a local hospital. But police have already decided she, not the driver, was at fault. The victim is being charged with ”pedestrian in the roadway,” a legal term for “jaywalking.”

Sally Flocks, director of Atlanta’s pedestrian advocacy organization, PEDS, says it is not unusual for police officers in the region to cite and fault pedestrians involved in collisions, even as they’re lying in hospital beds.

“For the cops, I think it gives them closure” to fault one of the parties, she said. “They could cite the driver for failing to show due care. They tend not to do that.”

Part of the problem is that Georgia has one of the most draconian pedestrian laws in the country. Last year, the Georgia legislature passed a law that made it illegal for pedestrians and runners to use the roadway if there are sidewalks on the road.

“It’s being interpreted by police officers to make it illegal to cross the street,” Flocks said.

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Cyclist Gets Retaliatory Ticket For Telling Cop to Stop Blocking Bike Lane

Here’s an argument for using cameras to enforce traffic laws: getting cops like this off of the traffic beat.

As first reported in the Daily News, Brooklyn cyclist Ben Kopciel was issued a $200 ticket earlier this month in what looks like a retaliatory gesture for telling an NYPD officer to get out of the Ocean Parkway bike path. The encounter was captured by Kopciel on video (a New York Times-endorsed trend).

Kopciel was biking north on the Ocean Parkway greenway, located in a median between the service road and the central traffic artery. Where the bikeway intersects 18th Avenue, a police car was parked squarely across the painted bike crossing. As he swerved around the car, Kopciel curtly told the officer, “Move back,” while gesturing with his hand, then continued down the bike path.

As he approached the next intersection, however, the same officer was pulling into the same bike path-blocking position, this time with his lights flashing. The officer pulled Kapciel over and asked him why he didn’t stop at the previous light. Kopciel said he did.

Rewind the video and you can see that at the moment Kopciel entered the intersection, the pedestrian signal was still blinking red; the traffic light, which is out of the frame, therefore had likely not yet turned. As Kopciel crossed the street, the video shows a yellow school bus entering the intersection just before him. A few seconds later, you can see a pack of three or four cars behind that bus, cars which must have crossed at about the same moment as Kopciel. Only the cyclist, of course, was pulled over.

The misuse of police power on display is all the more revealing in context. The 70th Precinct, where the officer was stationed, only handed out 30 tickets for running red lights in the month of June, or about one a day. How many times of the tickets were like this one, and how many did the 70th Precinct issue to drivers for dangerously blowing through a red?

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Park Slope Cop Brings About Sidewalk Cycling, Then Tickets It

The NYPD has never hesitated to park in the city's bike lanes (this van was parked on the Bowery last summer). Photo: Ben Fried

We at Streetsblog aren’t big fans of sidewalk bike riding. As we’ve said before, if the police truly must take time away from targeting the most dangerous traffic crimes, like motorist speeding and failure-to-yield, sidewalk riding is the kind of infraction for them to worry about. Pedestrian space is scarce enough in New York City.

But that doesn’t excuse this story of entrepreneurial police work out of Park Slope.

Last Friday, at least two separate cyclists were ticketed for traveling a couple car lengths on the sidewalk of 3rd Street, between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. Why were they on the sidewalk? To get around the police car blocking the bike lane, the vehicle of the very same officer doing the ticketing.

Makalé Faber-Cullen was riding home from work at around 6:00 p.m. when she hit a traffic jam on 3rd. A police car was parked in the bike lane. Cars had enough room to go around it, but not easily, and Faber-Cullen said she didn’t feel safe entering the queue of tightly-packed drivers. “There really wasn’t a passage through,” she explained, “so I went on the sidewalk for maybe 20 or 30 feet, just to go around the police car. I got back on the bike lane right after that.”

After re-entering the bike lane, however, the police officer called out to her, asked for her ID, and slapped her with a summons for riding on the sidewalk. Faber-Cullen said she’d felt a bit sheepish about making the mistake of not walking her bike the short distance, until she caught up with a family of three — two parents and a three-year-old — also on their bikes, and started speaking with the father.

“He said he’d been gotten by the same officer five minutes ago,” said Faber-Cullen. “It was infuriating.”

Pulling over a cyclist for riding on the sidewalk is one thing. Parking in the bike lane and waiting until someone inevitably goes the wrong way around? That’s another story. There wasn’t any public safety problem until the officer arrived on the scene.

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NYPD Sends Law-Abiding Vietnam Vet Cyclist to the Tombs

What is it about riding a bike that makes someone such a tempting target for police harassment?

The scene last Friday night, as reported in Gothamist, was the perfect magnet for NYPD misconduct: a Critical Mass ride headed to Union Square to participate in an Occupy Wall Street action. The department’s public safety priorities were on clear display, with 40 officers escorting 30 cyclists.

It seemed to be shaping up as an uneventful ride, until the group hit Lafayette Street. As cyclists rode in the bike lane, they encountered an obstacle: a limousine, caught on camera, parked in the bike lane. After maneuvering around it, the ride turned right onto Astor Place.

For that, the police stopped Robert Nash, a veteran of the Vietnam War. The charge wasn’t clear — on video, the arresting officer stumbled over what he’d just cited Nash for — but according to Gothamist, the police cited 34 RCNY § 4-12(p). The law requires cyclists to stay in a bike lane when the infrastructure is provided, but provides two big exceptions. Cyclists may leave the bike lane to avoid unsafe conditions, like a stretch limo parked in the bike lane, or to make a turn, like the Critical Mass participants did after encountering the limo.

The charges didn’t stand up for long — Nash was released the following morning after the DA’s office opted against prosecuting — but it was enough time for him to spend a night in the Tombs, Manhattan’s downtown jail. According to Gothamist, Nash chose to go to jail rather than provide the police with his address.

None of the 40 police on Critical Mass/OWS detail ticketed the illegally parked limousine that forced the cyclists to leave the bike lane in the first place.

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A Long Explanation of Why the Biking-While-Sexy Story Is No Hoax

Jasmijn Rijcken asked a tourist to take this picture of her on the Brooklyn Bridge on May 3.

While it’s shocking to think that, in this day and age, a New York City police officer would stop and harass a female cyclist for biking in a short skirt, as Jasmijn Rijcken said happened to her last month, it also seems to fit the zeitgeist, coming amidst the well-publicized NYPD bike crackdown and following the sordid trial of two cops on rape charges (and their stunning acquittal). But when Streetsblog and Gothamist readers discovered that Rijcken touts her expertise in “guerrilla marketing” on her LinkedIn profile (sample prose: “We provide marketing in disguise and make YOU the talk of the town”), rumors started fluttering on Twitter that the story might have been too perfectly placed. Was it all a ploy to drum up publicity for the bikes that she was in town to promote?

The biking-while-sexy storyline has certainly garnered a lot of attention, getting picked up on Gothamist, the Daily News, Gawker and lots of blogs, most of which don’t seem to mention Rijcken’s bike company, Vanmoof. So Streetsblog reviewed the available information, double- and triple-checked with our sources, and spoke to a few more people. Our conclusion: It’s much more likely that Rijcken is the victim of harassment than the diabolical mastermind of an intricate viral marketing campaign.

Rijcken’s story is difficult to prove or disprove beyond the shadow of a doubt. No ticket was issued, no friends were with her to witness the episode, and Rijcken did not obtain the name or badge number of the cop. All of which is perfectly plausible given that Rijcken was a foreign tourist in an unfamiliar city, who committed no actual offense. But it leaves a dearth of direct evidence.

The indirect evidence is persuasive, however, starting with the fact that Rijcken told her American acquaintances about the incident the day it happened — May 3 — nearly three weeks before she posted a short note about it on Facebook.

George Bliss and Marlo Medrano of Hudson Urban Bicycles, a West Village bike shop, confirmed that Rijcken described an encounter with NYPD when she saw them later the same day. “She told it to us at the store,” said Bliss, “the night it happened.” Rijcken was in town for the New Amsterdam Bike Show and had a business meeting with Bliss and Medrano at their shop, which carries her company’s bikes. When she arrived, they said, she told them what had taken place.

Bliss’s recap of Rijcken’s account more or less matched what Rijcken told Streetsblog last Friday: An NYPD officer stopped her, accused her of endangering people by wearing a skirt that would distract drivers, took her ID and only let her off once she said she was Dutch. Medrano confirmed that she was wearing the skirt shown in the widely-circulated photograph of Rijcken on her bike, which Rijcken said was taken by other tourists while she was sightseeing on the Brooklyn Bridge, before she was stopped by the police.

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Saudi Arabia on the Hudson: NYPD Officer Stopped Cyclist For Wearing Skirt

When Jasmijn Rijcken, the general manager of the VANMOOF bicycle company, traveled from Amsterdam to New York in late April, she was excited to see what she’d heard described as a city that had embraced bicycling. It wasn’t NYC’s new protected bike lanes that defined her ride through the city, however, but the New York Police Department, currently in the midst of a major crackdown against cyclists.

Jasmijn Rijcken was stopped and almost ticketed by an NYPD officer for biking in this outfit. Her skirt, the officer said, was too distracting for drivers.

Rijcken was in town for the New Amsterdam Bike Show on April 30. After she had dismounted on Broadway in SoHo, an NYPD officer stopped, berated, and threatened to ticket Rijcken for wearing a skirt while cycling, which, it must be noted, is entirely legal and common. Rijcken says the officer told her that her skirt was dangerous because she would distract drivers and potentially cause them to crash.

“I was standing there next to my bike, looking at my map, and then this police guy stops and starts telling me about my skirt,” reported Rijcken. “At first I thought he was making a joke or maybe even a compliment, but then I found out he was serious because he got really mad.”

The officer got out of his car and threatened to ticket her, said Rijcken, even though, it bears repeating, there is no law against biking in a skirt. The justification for a potential ticket was the danger her exposed skin posed to everyone on the street. “That was the bottom line, that I was very dangerous,” said Rijcken. “I think every woman, even when walking in a skirt, would be dangerous then.”

According to Rijcken, the cop’s words were not merely an empty threat. He took her ID and only began to back down when he saw that she was Dutch. She hurriedly explained that in Amsterdam, it’s common for women to bike in skirts. In the end, the officer told her she should change into pants and let her go.

At the time, Rijcken said, she wasn’t sure that she hadn’t broken the law. “If you’re by yourself in a different country and a police guy comes really angrily at you, you get scared,” she said.

This is not the first time an NYPD officer has stopped cyclists for completely frivolous non-offenses. In April, a private school administrator received a ticket for biking with a tote bag on her handlebars. The police have not responded to a Streetsblog inquiry about Rijcken’s allegations.

Her harassment at the hands of the police has colored Rijcken’s perception of not only New York City but the United States. “I was shocked,” she said. “In Holland, people refer to America as the country of freedom.”