The Silence After the Hit-and-Run
Five years ago, several shocking fatalities pushed the police department to expand its crash investigation squad. Apart from renaming the unit, little has changed.
Bernadette Karna at the intersection where, in June 2016, she was hit by a vehicle and dragged 50 feet before the driver sped off.CreditCreditJonah Markowitz for The New York Times
The sun had just risen when Bernadette Karna, dressed in her American Airlines uniform, set out on her commute: a taxi from her Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan to 41st Street and Lexington Avenue, then a shuttle to John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Traffic was sparse that morning in June 2016, and she arrived in Midtown with enough time to grab coffee before boarding the 6 a.m. shuttle. As she crossed Third Avenue, a white S.U.V. suddenly slammed into Ms. Karna, dragging her and her suitcase 50 feet up Third Avenue.
Then the driver sped away, leaving her lying in the street.
“I didn’t see it, I didn’t hear it, I didn’t sense it,” Ms. Karna, 52, recently recalled. “It just knocked me out.”
As she slipped in and out of consciousness, an ambulance rushed her to Bellevue Hospital Center, where doctors cut off her uniform and put a tube in her chest to help her breathe. The impact broke four ribs on her left side and crushed her right side so badly she would need metal plates and screws to rebuild it. She had fractures in her right foot, left knee and back. A hole in her right foot would take six months to close.
“I felt like I was going to die,” she said.
But when Ms. Karna got past the worst of her trauma, she could find out almost nothing about the crash. All she had was the New York Police Department’s two-page report, filled out by the officer who responded to the scene. On it, a box labeled “Not Investigated at Scene” is checked, which meant the department’s Collision Investigation Squad, a specialized unit that collects evidence and determines whether a crime occurred, had not come to the scene of the crash.
The Collision Investigation Squad was once an obscure division that was unknown outside the Police Department, and barely known within. Then, starting in 2011, two fatal crashes in quick succession brought public scrutiny and withering criticism to the unit for its incomplete and toothless investigations.
The Police Department vowed to do better. By 2013, the department had added eight officers to the crash squad, bringing the total to 26, and it established a new team of 12 crime scene technicians to assist the collision investigators. Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said he believed the newly fortified unit would nearly quadruple its caseload, investigating as many as 1,200 crashes each year.
Cases like those of Ms. Karna were exactly the sort that the squad seemed to be created to handle.
This August, more than two years after she was nearly killed on Third Avenue, Ms. Karna appeared before City Council to share her story and testify in favor of two bills to study and deter dangerous driving habits. She also expressed dismay at the Police Department’s failure to hold anyone responsible for her crash.
“It’s unacceptable,” Speaker Corey Johnson said after Ms. Karna’s testimony. “That would be shocking and upsetting, allowing someone who … almost killed Bernadette to continue to get back on the streets of New York City without a thorough investigation.”
Today, the Collision Investigation Squad has fewer officers than it did in 2013, and it investigates fewer crashes than it did when the Police Department announced its efforts to overhaul the unit. Last year, the squad investigated 380 crashes, down from 466 in 2013. The squad now has 24 officers, two fewer than in 2013. A vast majority of crashes instead fall to patrol officers who have no special forensic training and file brief, two-page reports.
The slow pace of change is all the more remarkable given that Mayor Bill de Blasio has sought to prioritize traffic safety. In 2014, his first year in office, he started his Vision Zero initiative, aiming to eliminate traffic deaths through improved engineering, heightened public awareness and increased enforcement.
Over decades of high violent crime, traffic enforcement had rarely been a focus for the Police Department. But with felonies falling to record lows, the department has gained the leeway to rethink its mission. Hundreds of officers have been shifted into a neighborhood policing program intended to improve community relations, another priority of the de Blasio administration.
But the Collision Investigation Squad has not seen a similar infusion of resources, even as the mayor has continued to assert himself as a traffic safety advocate.
Crash investigations provide invaluable information for the city Department of Transportation, helping identify roadways in need of redesign or other safety measures, officials said. The Collision Investigation Squad’s forensic work provides evidence for prosecuting drivers; when the squad does not investigate, local district attorneys rarely bring a case. And the Police Department uses the findings to identify locations that merit increased traffic enforcement.
“It’s crucial information about what happens at particular crashes,” said Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner. “Were there roadway engineering elements? Were there driver behavior elements? Are we seeing patterns?”
But Ms. Trottenberg and police officials stopped short of saying the Collision Investigation Squad should expand its caseload. The Police Department said that the squad’s decreasing number of investigations indicates fewer serious crashes are happening.
While traffic deaths are at an all-time low — at least since the city began record-keeping in 1910 — data from the state Department of Motor Vehicles show an increase in crashes citywide over the last decade, with the number causing serious injury holding steady.
Not every crash mandates a police report. State law dictates that only those involving “serious injury” require investigation. And yet, each year in New York City, thousands of crashes that cause injury have no police report at all, an analysis of the D.M.V. data shows. Police Department officials said many of these crashes likely were low-impact, or are part of fraudulent insurance claims.
In Ms. Karna’s case, a police detective briefly investigated the crash, then retired. Desperate to learn more, she asked to see the detective’s file on her case, for which she was required to submit a public records request to the Police Department.
“It didn’t even occur to me that I’d have to do part of the detective work,” she said.
In April, more than 19 months after submitting the request, Ms. Karna received her records, which she shared with The Times. She said she was shocked to learn the detective had identified a suspect, then closed the case, citing a lack of probable cause.
“It’s upsetting to know that he’s still out there,” Ms. Karna said. “They need to take people off the streets.”
Beginning in 2011, two fatal crashes put the Collision Investigation Squad — then called the Accident Investigation Squad — in the spotlight.
First, a cyclist named Mathieu Lefevre was killed in a hit-and-run in Brooklyn in October that year. Mr. Lefevre was biking home just after midnight in Williamsburg when he was hit by a truck making a turn. Crash investigators showed up but failed to collect or photograph evidence, and though the suspected driver was later found, he was not charged with leaving the scene, which is a criminal offense. There was a public outcry, and Mr. Lefevre’s family sued the Police Department for withholding information about the case.
The case caught the attention of the City Council, and in 2012 it reviewed the work of the Police Department’s crash unit and requested it respond to more crashes.
Later that year, a man sued the Police Department over its handling of the crash that killed his wife. A call to crash investigators had been canceled because his wife was alive when she got to the hospital, the complaint said, but she died the next day. The crash squad began investigating days later.
In March 2013, Commissioner Raymond Kelly announced with some fanfare that the unit, rechristened as the Collision Investigation Squad, would expand its criteria to investigate crashes. Mr. Kelly said the department would increase the number of investigators and create a specialized team of crime scene technicians to assist them.
The squad had also acquired state-of-the-art technology, like onboard vehicle dynamometers, for reconstructing crashes.
But the City Council and safe streets advocates homed in on the squad’s new criteria for which crashes to investigate — whether the crash caused a critical injury.
The Police Department chose “critical injury” as the squad’s new standard because it is a common standard for the Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services, officials told the City Council at an oversight hearing. The term applies to someone receiving CPR, in respiratory arrest, or requiring and receiving life-sustaining ventilator or circulatory support.
But the Police Department also suggested the decision was based, at least partly, on how many more investigations it would require.
“We tried to strike a balance between the number of investigations that could be undertaken in a competent fashion with the right level of injury,” Susan Petito, then the department’s assistant commissioner for intergovernmental affairs, said during the hearing.
Councilman James Vacca, the hearing’s co-chair, was not pleased. New York State uses a broader standard — “serious injury” — when compiling crash data. When requesting that the Collision Investigation Squad respond to more crashes, Mr. Vacca had written to the Police Department recommending the broader standard.
“I didn’t feel that the Police Department was really turning over rocks the way that I felt we had to,” said Mr. Vacca, who is no longer on the City Council, in a recent interview.
According to Police Department protocol, every crash should trigger a similar sequence of events. Officers from the local precinct respond to the scene and fill out a standard two-page accident report. If someone died or the crash appears serious enough to warrant fuller investigation, based on conversations with emergency medical personnel at the scene, the officers summon the crash unit.
The collision technician group arrives first. They close off the crash scene for evidence collection and 3D modeling. Then detectives from the collision squad, using this data, reconstruct the likely trajectory and speed of the vehicles involved. They also canvas for witnesses and gather surveillance footage.
Across the city, the squad has four offices, housed within the Police Department’s Highway Patrol units: one each in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, and another that covers both Manhattan and the Bronx. Despite the staffing decrease since 2013, Inspector Steven D’Ulisse, the Highway Patrol’s commanding officer, said the crash squad has enough officers.
“We never had a case that we cut short because of lack of personnel,” he said. “And there’s been times that, if it got a little crazy, I just call people up from home. It’s not a big deal.”
After the unit’s overhaul in 2013, its investigative reports went from maybe a dozen pages on average to as many as 100 pages, which advocates deemed a win for transparency. Still, victims like Ms. Karna or their families must file public records requests to see their own investigative files, a process that can take months or years.
The day after Ms. Karna was hit, a detective from the 17th Precinct, Christopher Kolenda, visited her in Bellevue Hospital’s intensive care unit. She told him a witness waiting with her for the ambulance said the vehicle that hit her was a white van.
The next few months went by in a haze. Ms. Karna took oxycodone for the pain and muscle relaxers to help her sleep, but she rarely managed more than five hours. When she went for a checkup, a doctor told her she was lucky to be alive.
But what Detective Kolenda had done to find out who nearly killed her remained a mystery until April, when Ms. Karna finally got a copy of his investigation.
According to the detective’s records, the one witness listed on the two-page report — compiled by an officer at the scene — said he didn’t actually see the crash, nor did two people who called 911. Reached by phone, the witness confirmed the detective’s account but said the vehicle involved was a black pickup truck — not the white S.U.V. noted in the crash report, and not the white van that Ms. Karna was told about.
Using footage from the department’s own cameras, Detective Kolenda identified a vehicle matching the description on the police accident report, and two and a half weeks after the crash, he interviewed the S.U.V.’s registered owner, who said he had been driving it the day of the crash but insisted he had not been in a crash that day. The man told Detective Kolenda there was no damage to his car, according to the detective’s notes, but there are no records indicating the detective inspected the vehicle.
If the crash squad had taken Ms. Karna’s case, an investigator might have examined the car for damage or signs it had been repaired. The squad also could have obtained the owner’s cellphone records to confirm where he was at the time of the crash.
Two months later, on Aug. 31, the detective consulted with the department’s Legal Bureau, which determined there was no probable cause to arrest the suspect because there were no witnesses who saw him driving, no conclusive video and no confession.
At the end of September, Detective Kolenda closed the investigation, pending any new information. At nearly the same time, he retired. The detective did not respond to requests for comment.
“They failed us,” Ms. Karna said. “We didn’t get justice.”
As of last year, the Collision Investigation Squad’s duties now include investigating hit-and-runs that knock someone unconscious. If Ms. Karna’s crash had happened just one year later, the highway division’s Inspector D’Ulisse acknowledged, perhaps the crash investigation squad would have responded to the crash.
The department is reviewing her case, Inspector D’Ulisse said, to determine whether there are grounds for reopening it.
In some ways, Ms. Karna got more than most. Precinct detectives investigate hit-and-runs not covered by the Collision Investigation Squad, but many crash victims have only the two-page police accident report.
Last year, the Police Department introduced a pilot program, in which four Manhattan North officers investigate some crashes that don’t rise to the level of the Collision Investigation Squad. That includes hit-and-runs resulting in injury and any crash that causes a serious physical injury but doesn’t rise to the “critical injury” standard. This squad would have been on the scene of Ms. Karna’s hit-and-run.
The officers investigated 125 crash scenes from September 2017 to the end of June, according to Lt. Christopher Cantelmi, who is in charge of the program.
“It’s a baby crime scene unit,” Lieutenant Cantelmi said of the group, which trained with the department’s highway patrol and learned to measure and photograph crash scenes. “If this goes well, like we believe it is, we are looking to expand it to other boroughs.”
The pilot is now spreading to Brooklyn South. Meanwhile, the city’s transportation department is determining the next high-crash areas in line for safety improvements, a list expected by late fall. But the driver who hit Ms. Karna is still at large — perhaps even still behind the wheel.