Mathieu Lefevre Case Prompts City Council Hearing on NYPD's Investigation of Cycling Deaths

LefevreVaccaro.jpg
Erika Lefevre and her lawyer, Steve Vaccaro, gave testimony at today's hearing.
In a rare oversight hearing on the New York Police Department's treatment of traffic accidents involving bicyclists and pedestrians, Council members, advocates, and the relatives of slain cyclists expressed anger and frustration at what they say is the NYPD's reluctance to charge the drivers responsible.

Deputy Chief John Cassidy of the NYPD's Transportation Bureau assured Council members that the police are doing a good job keeping the streets safe. He cited a 33 percent decrease in traffic fatalities citywide over the past ten years, even as the department's staffing numbers have been slashed.

But Council members pressed Cassidy and Assistant Commissioner Susan Petito on how the department handles accidents involving cyclists and pedestrians: Unless someone hit by a car is killed or seems likely to die, the police don't even send out an Accident Investigation Team.

As a consequence, while drivers involved in these accidents are sometimes charged with traffic violations -- running a red light, for example -- they are almost never charged with reckless endangerment, even if they've left a trail of broken bones and other non-fatal injuries in their wake.

A new law passed by the state legislature in 2010 stiffens penalties for drivers who hurt cyclists and pedestrians, but the police department forbids patrol officers from using this law.

"The Police Department isn't doing active investigating when people are seriously hurt," concluded Council Member Daniel Garodnick. "Unless they're likely to die, there's no follow-up from the Police Department."

Even if a cyclist is killed and the Accident Investigation Team is called in, that doesn't guarantee a thorough investigation, or even a competent one.

Erika Lefevre -- who's son Mathieu was killed in Brooklyn last fall by a truck driver who didn't use his turn signal -- gave searing testimony about the treatment her son's case received from police.

"The NYPD had failed to bring a working camera to the crash scene, so there were no pictures of the scene (although, disturbingly, they gathered pictures of our family protesting its intransigence). They failed to preserve critical pieces of evidence, like my son's blood and helmet. The NYPD relied on the driver's statements and reactions to the crash as dispositive evidence that he did not know he had hurt someone -- exonerating him from criminal charges. Adding insult to injury, they informed the driver of the results of the investigation immediately but waited weeks before telling us. Most baffling of all, the NYPD claims their conclusion was based on a surveillance video that contradicts the very sequence of events described in the police report."

Lefevre's account was hardly unique. Michele Matson, who's story was told in the Voice last summer, described a reluctant and half-assed police investigation of the driver who struck her bicycle, throwing her half a block and shattering her vertebrae.

The mother of Rasha Shamoon, who was killed by a driver at the intersection of Bowery and Delancey in 2008, described the initial police report that held her daughter at fault for the accident, and the three year legal struggle that recently ended in a finding that the driver was 95 percent responsible.

Teresa Pedroza, the grandmother of Dashane Santana, a 12-year-old killed cycling on Delancey street, said the police let the driver who killed her go without charges, even though a witness said he was speeding.

"My granddaughter is gone because it's just that easy for a dangerous driver to enter life on our streets," Pedroza said.

Cycling advocate Richard Rosenthal summed up the lesson for reckless drivers who hit cyclists: "Be sure you kill them," he said in his testimony to the City Council. "Dead people can't testify against you. And police will accept your uncontradicted word... never mind physical evidence."

Previous Coverage:

[npinto@villagevoice.com] [@macfathom]

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