After Criticism, Police Change Policy and Begin Investigating More Traffic Crashes
Published: March 10, 2013
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
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."
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."