Atlantic Cities

The Biggest Test Yet of the NYPD's Pledge to Treat Traffic Deaths Seriously

The Biggest Test Yet of the NYPD's Pledge to Treat Traffic Deaths Seriously
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The people of the city of New York should pay attention to the death of Felix Coss in Brooklyn last weekend.

Coss, a teacher at the Beginning With Children charter school in Williamsburg, was killed when a police officer struck him with a marked police van in a crosswalk while she was making a left turn, according to news reports.

It was broad daylight – 4:30 in the afternoon. Coss, according to sources cited by the New York Post, had the pedestrian light. The officer was not responding to an emergency.

Initially, according to the Post, "No criminality and no traffic-law violations are suspected, police said." And this: "It was a tragic, unfortunate accident," according to a police source. The officer "failed to see" the 61-year-old Coss as he crossed exactly where you would be looking for pedestrians when you made a turn at an intersection. No charges were expected, police told the media.

But then, according to DNAInfo, witnesses came forward claiming that the officer was talking on a cell phone when she made the turn. That’s illegal in the city of New York. The police now say they are investigating further, and have subpoenaed the officer's cellphone records after she refused to turn over the device.

The NYPD, whose "no criminality suspected" mantra has long been a sad punch line in traffic fatalities, has been trying to upgrade its response to vehicular violence in the city. They recently changed the name of their "Accident Investigation Squad" to "Collision Investigation Squad," a shift that is about more than semantics: it reflects a different, more progressive attitude toward the inevitability of crashes. The CIS has been charged with investigating not only crashes in which someone dies on the scene or is flagged as “likely to,” in police parlance. Now, all crashes in which victims are critically injured are supposed to be investigated.

This latest case will be a chance to see just how deep the changes are going in the department’s culture. As Brad Aaron at Streetsblog points out:

It is in fact against the law to strike a pedestrian with a motor vehicle in New York State. At minimum, it seems the officer who struck Coss with sufficient force to end his life would have been in violation of the state’s careless driving law.

The habitual failure to charge drivers who kill pedestrians and cyclists has fostered the suspicion and anger with which pedestrian and bicycling advocates regard police enforcement of traffic laws in New York.

Last year, local precincts wrote more tickets for people riding their bikes on the sidewalk than for people speeding in their cars. This, as Streetsblog writes, despite the reality that speeding is the leading cause of traffic deaths in New York, according to the city's own department of transportation. In 2012, 155 pedestrians and cyclists were killed by motor vehicles on New York streets, and 15,465 were injured.

Top image: Abdul Sami Haqqani / Shutterstock.com

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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