A vehicle hits a pedestrian or cyclist, causing serious injuries or even death. Would you call that an “accident” or a “collision”? It’s more than mere semantics.
In October 2011, Mathieu Lefevre was struck and killed by a truck while he was riding his bicycle in Brooklyn, New York. The driver left the scene and later claimed he had no idea he had struck anyone. He was never charged in the case, and the Lefevre family went to court to protest the way information had been withheld from them. An NYPD officer’s comment to a New York newspaper enraged cycling advocates: “There’s no criminality. That’s why they call it an accident.”
At a February 2012 City Council hearing, other victims of hit-and-run accidents in New York packed the room to testify about mishandling of their own cases, complaining that the NYPD routinely withholds evidence and refuses to charge drivers properly. In the Lefevre case, court papers claim the NYPD “allowed blood and paint marks from Mathieu’s bike on the truck to wash away in the rain without any documentation.”
Many onlookers—including cyclists who rode their bikes to the hearing—expressed dissatisfaction with NYPD’s responses to questions. “Not sure we can provide those numbers” was the response to a request for specific statistical information. Some cyclists demanded that the NYPD take a more serious look at traffic violations by truck drivers. In 2011, more than 48,000 summonses were given to bike rides in the city, but only 25,000 tickets were given to truck drivers.
Now the NYPD is adopting a package of reforms, including replacing “accident” with “collision” in police reports. In the past, investigators from the Accident Investigation Squad went into action only when a victim died or was listed in critical condition. Now a police captain will also be able to request an investigation, and injuries need only be considered “serious.”
The NYPD said the changes have already gone into effect: Dozens of investigations have been conducted, and criminal charges have been filed in several cases. The new policies will lead to a more evidence-based, data-driven approach to investigating and preventing traffic deaths in the city.
The news wasn’t entirely bad for the NYPD: Publicity about the investigation problems also shone a light on the city’s successful campaign for safer streets. In 2011 the city recorded 237 traffic deaths, a 40 percent drop from a decade earlier, though preliminary 2012 figures suggest an increase.
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Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.