Earlier this month, a drunk driver plowed onto a Williamsburg sidewalk at 3 a.m., seriously injuring three people and killing one. The scene painted by witnesses was reminiscent of a bloody war movie—a severed leg, a body impaled on a fence, and people running in fear.
While bystanders tried to aid the victims, ripping their shirts into tourniquets to stop the bleeding, the driver tried to flee. When he was stopped by still more heroic New Yorkers, he hopped in the passenger seat and acted clueless about what had happened.
He was an NYPD officer scheduled to work in less than four hours.
This episode is tragically emblematic of the NYPD’s relationship to NYC’s efforts to end traffic violence, a campaign known as Vision Zero. Both with their actions and inaction, the NYPD has driven the violence in our streets and acted clueless about what has caused the carnage.
To say the NYPD’s Vision Zero efforts have been a complete failure would be a vast understatement. They have been far worse.
Under the banner of Vision Zero, the NYPD has routinely targeted enforcement against pedestrians and cyclists, the city’s most vulnerable road users, even though their own data definitively shows that drivers’ actions are the primary cause of most fatal and serious injury crashes. Some of these initiatives have bordered on sadism. Last month, after a driver killed a prominent member of the cycling community who was riding in a bike lane and breaking no laws, the NYPD cracked down on cyclists who didn’t have bells on their bikes. These crackdowns have created widespread contempt for law enforcement in the very community that advocated for the NYPD to champion Vision Zero.
When the NYPD has actually targeted drivers, they have done so mostly with ticket traps, writing hundreds of violations in areas where the flow of traffic breaks the letter of the law because it is safe to do so without endangering the public, such as negligible speeding on highways, rather than focusing on erratic behavior in pedestrian rich areas. These crackdowns have driven up summons numbers, which the NYPD has boasted about in Vision Zero reports, but netted zero gain for safety.
Worst of all, the NYPD’s Vision Zero enforcement has targeted communities of color. Studies of both pedestrian and cyclist summonses have shown that NYPD traffic enforcement is heavier in these communities than elsewhere, even though traffic violence is almost evenly distributed across the five boroughs. People have also documented routine, mandatory checkpoints for drivers in Harlem, the Bronx, and Bed Stuy under the auspice of Vision Zero. I’ve yet to see one in Midtown or Downtown Manhattan. These crackdowns have further victimized these communities, further eroded the NYPD’s relationship with them, and turned many people in these communities against the city’s efforts to end traffic violence generally, a huge disservice to the safer streets movement and the safety and vibrancy of the City itself.
In the early days of the de Blasio administration, perhaps no one was more vocal in demanding that the NYPD get on board with Vision Zero than me. Both in the streets and in the broadsheets, I pushed them to stop targeting vulnerable road users and start enforcing against the infractions that were actually killing hundreds of New Yorkers per year. I even met with high ranking members of the NYPD and cheered them when their enforcement seemed positive.
But it is long past time for everyone to admit that the NYPD is incompatible with safe streets. They cannot be reformed in any meaningful way. Wherever possible, their enforcement should be eliminated.
In terms of traffic enforcement, this requires no great feat of imagination. The Swedish Vision Zero campaign, on which NYC’s is based, prominently states that enforcement should be Vision Zero’s last resort, and that the need for enforcement indicates a failure of engineering and education.
When NYC implemented Vision Zero, it reverted to America’s default approach to societal problems: punishment. It put policing first. So much so that many New Yorkers see Vision Zero exclusively as an NYPD initiative. This is especially true in underserved communities where the City implements far more policing campaigns than public space enhancements or community initiatives.
From day one, the NYPD stated that its Vision Zero effort would extend Broken Windows policing into traffic enforcement. That is exactly what it has done and how it has been perceived. Like Broken Windows policing, the NYPD’s Vision Zero enforcement has been counter-productive, racially biased, and divisive.
We must reverse course. We must use effective engineering and education to eliminate the need for enforcement. Where necessary to save lives until the problem can be resolved with other means, routine traffic enforcement can be achieved far more effectively with cameras than cops.
Some argue that even if Broken Windows policing is eliminated, we need cops to handle violent crimes. In terms of traffic violence, these are fatal and serious injury crashes. However, the NYPD has proven largely worthless in dealing with these, as well. They bring charges in only a fraction of these cases. They refuse to share their detailed investigations with the public, rendering them virtually useless. And they routinely blame victims through anonymous leaks to the press that are frequently proven false. This practice is devastating to the families of the victims and warps the public’s perception about what causes crashes.
In terms of ending traffic violence in NYC, every dollar spent on enforcement by the NYPD would be better spent elsewhere. It would be better spent on infrastructure. It would be better spent on community programs. It would be better spent cut from the Vision Zero budget entirely than spent on the NYPD.
Keegan Stephan is a writer and activist.