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After Criticism, Police Change Policy and Begin Investigating More Traffic Crashes

After Criticism, Police Change Policy and Begin Investigating More Traffic Crashes

By MATT FLEGENHEIMER and J. DAVID GOODMAN
Published: March 10, 2013
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In a marked shift of protocol, the New York Police Department has begun conducting robust investigations of traffic crashes that result in critical injuries but not certain or likely death.

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In the past, investigators from a specialized unit, the Accident Investigation Squad, were sent only when at least one victim had died or was deemed by first responders to be "likely to die."

The new policy was outlined in a letter sent last week from the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, to the City Council. Under it, the department's crash investigators will be summoned "when there has been a critical injury or when a Police Department duty captain believes the extent of the injuries and/or unique circumstances of a collision warrant such action," Mr. Kelly wrote.

Though the change had not been made public, Paul J. Browne, the department's chief spokesman, said on Sunday that the police "had already begun to respond to instances where the injuries were serious but not fatal."

Dozens of investigations stemming from the new rules have been conducted since September, law enforcement officials said, including one involving a crash that nearly severed a woman's leg in Manhattan in February and another after a multicar, nonfatal pileup on the Whitestone Bridge last year. In many of these cases, including the Whitestone crash, criminal charges have resulted.

Mr. Kelly said in his letter that the department would also increase the size of the investigation squad and revise its Patrol Guide to reflect which crashes warrant investigations.

And in a symbolic semantic change that some advocates for crash victims have long requested, the department will begin using the term "collision" instead of "accident" to describe crashes, Mr. Kelly said. The squad itself will soon be renamed the Collision Investigation Squad.

"In the past, the term 'accident' has sometimes given the inaccurate impression or connotation that there is no fault or liability associated with a specific event," Mr. Kelly wrote.

The increase in investigations could be important for both prosecutors, who expect to build better cases from the more frequent collision reports, and transportation engineers eager for a deeper trove of crash data.

"I think it will give us more information about what we can do when we design our streets," Janette Sadik-Khan, the city's transportation commissioner, said in a phone interview. She noted, as Mr. Kelly did in his letter, that the changes were made possible, in part, because the streets had already become safer in recent years. In 2011, the city recorded 237 traffic deaths, a 40 percent drop from a decade earlier, though preliminary 2012 figures suggest an increase.

Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, suggested in an interview on Saturday that understanding the causes of a greater number of crashes "is going to help us see what flow works."

Mr. Kelly's letter followed hearings last year in which City Council members were critical of the department's response to crashes. The Council has introduced several bills calling for some of the changes addressed in Mr. Kelly's letter, and in December, the district attorneys for the city's five boroughs sent a joint letter to the Police Department supporting the policy shifts.

"Prosecutors rely on this crucial unit to gather evidence to determine whether criminality exists," said Daniel R. Alonso, the chief assistant to the Manhattan district attorney. "As such, we greatly support the commissioner's efforts."

Recently, a spate of grisly and high-profile traffic deaths has heightened public concern about traffic safety. On Feb. 28, a 6-year-old boy, Amar Diarrassouba, was fatally struck by a truck as he walked to school in East Harlem. Three days later, a hit-and-run crash in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, claimed the lives of two newlyweds and, the next day, their son, who had been delivered prematurely after the collision.

Mr. Browne said the plans to overhaul investigation guidelines were discussed before the recent fatal crashes.

Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a cycling and pedestrian advocacy group that has been sharply critical of the city's enforcement of traffic laws, hailed the changes as "a very significant step toward a safer, more humane city."

He recalled a 2011 crash that killed Clara Heyworth, a 28-year-old marketing manager who was fatally struck by a car while crossing a Brooklyn street. An investigation into her death was initially halted because she was still alive at the time and not deemed likely to die by emergency room doctors, the previous standard. The Accident Investigation Squad did not begin its formal investigation until three days after she died from her injuries.

"While the A.I.S. team was waiting to see if the patient dies or not, the crash scene was going cold," Mr. White said.

In a recent case of a woman whose leg was nearly severed after a car smashed into her on a Manhattan sidewalk, the squad's investigators responded rapidly to the scene despite an initial assessment that she would survive. An investigation, still continuing, had already begun when the woman died at the hospital hours later.

Mr. Kelly said in his letter that the threshold for investigating crashes would draw in part on existing guidelines that emergency responders used to identify critically injured victims: anyone receiving CPR, in respiratory arrest or requiring a ventilator or circulatory support.

The amendments, including the decision to banish "accident" from the department's traffic-crash vocabulary, showed how far the city had come, Mr. White said.

"An accident is when a meteor falls through your house and hits you in the head," he said. "Collisions can be prevented."

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