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Relatives Accuse NYPD of Going Easy on Drivers Involved in Fatal Accidents

By Jill Colvin | February 16, 2012 8:15am
Erika Lefevre consoles Samira Shamoon at a hearing calling on the NYPD to bring harsher punishments against drivers who injure and kill pedestrians and cyclists.
Erika Lefevre consoles Samira Shamoon at a hearing calling on the NYPD to bring harsher punishments against drivers who injure and kill pedestrians and cyclists.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

CITY HALL — Supporters of pedestrians or bicyclists killed in vehicular accidents accused the NYPD Wednesday of failing to properly investigate the motorists involved in the fatalities.

At an emotionally charged hearing, Erika Lefevre, whose son, Mathieu, was fatally struck by a flatbed truck in Brooklyn last fall, said investigators failed to photograph the scene or properly interview the driver.

Cops also refused to share information with the family, making their loss "even more painful" to bear, she said.

“We were appalled,” said a choked up Lefevre, fighting back tears. “I do not think that drivers who cause serious accidents and death should be able to walk away free, with no consequences.”

The City Council called the hearing in response to complaints that the NYPD has failed to conduct thorough investigations in the aftermath of the fatal accidents.

Council members said a major problem was that the NYPD's highly-trained Accident Investigation Squad is only deployed to scenes when a victim is immediately killed or critically injured. All other crashes are handled by local precinct cops, who take accident reports but investigate the circumstances less thoroughly.

The department is trying to do more with less, too, police brass said at the hearing. Due to staffing cuts, its Highway Patrol Division, which oversees the squad, shrank from 376 officers in 2000 to just 211 officers in 2011 — a 44 percent drop.

The State Legislature, meanwhile, recently passed new legislation that allows cops to slap drivers with extra penalties, including jail time, if the motorists cause deaths or injuries because they failed to "exercise due care.”

That's worse than a typical traffic offense, but less severe than vehicular homicide.

But the department has barred regular cops from writing the violations because accidents are rarely witnessed first-hand.

As a result, police said just 46 summonses were written last year.

“It’s really unacceptable,” said Brooklyn City Councilman Brad Lander. “You’ve got to find a way that these accidents can be investigated.”

City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca said he also wants police to find new ways to charge drivers who cause fatalities or serious injuries with more severe crimes.

“It seems pretty obvious to me that there is a big difference between running a red light, and killing someone while running that red light,” he said.

More New Yorkers were killed by reckless or speeding drivers from 2000 to 2009 than guns, he pointed out.

But John Cassidy, the NYPD’s chief of transportation, said some accidents really are accidents, and determining blame can be impossible.

While officers may suspect, for instance, that a driver committed a crime, “in many instances, the facts and fault are not sufficiently clear to establish probable cause that a crime was committed,” he said.

Still, he noted that 2011 was the safest year on record, with traffic fatalities and injuries at historic lows. 

“It’s not that we are not doing anything out there," he said.

"I think it’s quite the contrary. We are doing a lot with a lot less."

But Teresa Pedroza, 51, the grandmother of 12-year-old Dashane Santana who was struck and killed by a minivan while crossing Delancey Street last month, said more must be done to punish drivers involved in fatal accidents and get them off the road.

“Why is this allowed to happen?” asked Pedroza, whose granddaughter was a talented singer and dancer and had dreamed of attending Juilliard.

“My granddaughter’s gone because it’s just that easy for driver to end a life on our streets.

"This has to be stopped," she continued. "We can’t let them get away with murder."

No criminality was suspected in Santana's case.

Michelle Matson, 30, the victim of a hit-and-run driver, told members how shocked she was by how little effort police seemed to put into trying to find the driver who allegedly smashed into her bike in Greenpoint in 2010.

The accident left her with head trauma, a broken neck and a “shattered” leg, she said. She spent a week in intensive care and required six weeks of physical therapy to re-learn how to walk.

“The police don’t seem to care about finding anyone culpable for the hit-and-run,” she said. “There was no investigation. It was a joke.”

“I believe that I was victimized twice,” she added. “First by the hit-and-run, and secondly by the callous indifference of the NYPD."