Monday, February 16, 2009

Your Chance for Justice?

If you've been paying attention to the carnage, you've probably gotten tired of hearing phrases like, "the driver remained at the scene and was not charged," and "there did not appear to be any criminality involved." You've gotten the message: if a driver kills someone with a car, it doesn't matter how fast they were driving, how many distractions they had in the car, or whether they had the right of way. As long as they weren't under the influence and didn't leave the scene, they won't be charged with anything. Even if they kill you or your children with their negligence.

This is not only a gross perversion of justice, it also feeds the cycle of car dependence. The less safe people feel on the streets, the more they will choose to drive instead of walking - and that in turn means more dangerous cars on the road, less people to demand pedestrian and transit improvements, and more people to demand improvements to car infrastructure, which leads to more people choosing to drive.

There is a clear pattern on the part of the NYPD, and it is affected by "windshield perspective," where the officers (who drive at a rate much higher than the general population of the city) are more likely to side with the driver than any pedestrian or cyclist victims. In other parts of the country where it is very hard to make a living without a car, police and judges are loath to take away someone's livelihood. But this is New York City, where you can get to just about any job by transit, so there's really no excuse for lenience.

That said, the NYPD are public servants and they do listen to public input. Every precinct has a civilian-run precinct council where the precinct's officers respond to public concerns every month. You can look up your precinct and find out when the precinct council meets. If you know of an incident where a driver injured or killed someone and wasn't charged, round up some of your concerned neighbors and go ask the precinct commander why. Be polite and respectful but firm.

The NYPD may sometimes seem like a law unto itself, but in theory at least it's answerable to the Mayor, and we elect the Mayor. If the NYPD doesn't charge drivers who kill, they're doing it with the approval of Mayor Bloomberg. This year Mayor Bloomberg is running for re-election, and it's a good time to ask him why he doesn't tell Commissioner Kelly to crack down on killer drivers.

Finally, the police aren't likely to do much if it doesn't lead to at least a few successful convictions, and New York prosecutors don't seem very interested in these cases. They give the run-around to anyone who seems to care.

The good news is that this is also a 4x+1 year, meaning that Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes and Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau are up for re-election. (The next 4x+3 year is 2011, when there will be elections for the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island D.A.s.) It seems that incumbent D.A.s have even more of an advantage than incumbent Assemblymembers, but at age 90, Morgenthau is considered vulnerable and will likely have at least two challengers this year.

New Yorkers who care about this issue can make it part of the campaign. Manhattan D.A. candidate Leslie Crocker Snyder's campaign website has nothing about vehicular homicide on its issues page. If we want anything to change, we'll need to bring it up at campaign events, in direct contact with candidates, and in the media. Otherwise the campaign will be dominated by gangs and drugs. Those are important issues, but we should ask how they compare in terms of the number of people killed each year, and by their overall effect on our society.

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