A marathon City Council hearing elicited some new details about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero agenda and brought out the raw emotion of New Yorkers mourning loved ones killed on city streets.
The top item on the agenda at the joint transportation and public safety committee hearing was police enforcement of traffic laws. Newly-minted NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan said the department would focus on speeding and failure to yield, as well as improper turns, disobeying signage, and using a handheld device while driving.
Chan trumpeted a recent increase in staffing at the Highway Division, soon increasing to 270 officers from the previous 170. But under questioning from Council Member Corey Johnson, Chan revealed some of the limitations of that unit. “They’re dedicated to patrol the highways: FDR Drive, Henry Hudson Parkway and roadways of that nature,” Chan said. “In terms of enforcement on the street, it’s going to be on the precinct level.”
With precinct-level attention traditionally focused on violent and property crime, many council members were skeptical that the department would devote sufficient resources to traffic safety. Chan said there are currently 56 speed guns distributed between 32 of the department’s 77 precincts, and the department has another 200 speed guns on order — most of them using laser technology, which is more effective on city streets than traditional radar. Additional officers at each precinct will receive the four-day training to operate speed guns, Chan said.
Council Member James Vacca said a reduction in manpower has made it more difficult for the department to do traffic enforcement. “Since 2001, the Highway Unit was cut by 50 percent,” he said. “Local precincts were also coping with a 7,000[-person] citywide reduction in manpower.”
For Vision Zero to be successful, Council Member Brad Lander said, it has to be about more than just providing additional manpower, which may or may not materialize. “This is a big change in NYPD culture and structure,” he said. “Recruits don’t sign up for the academy, in their minds, to write speeding tickets.”
“My goal is to change the mindset of the individual officers who are on daily patrol in the precincts. They are the ones who are going to make a difference on this,” Chan said. “I cannot rely on a speciality unit to do this to achieve this goal.”