In 1996, the NYPD took over the job of traffic enforcement from the city’s Department of Transportation. Now, local government is moving to kick the job out of cops’ hands because they’ve been so bad at it.
The news comes from Streetsblog, under the headline “Campaign To Remove NYPD From Traffic Enforcement Gains Steam.” Basically, rich Manhattanites have had it with cops, who they say have actually made traffic safety worse, particularly with regards to bike safety. It’s not hard to find cops parking in bike lanes in the same neighborhoods where trucks strike and kill cyclists in the road.
Manhattan Community Board 4, which includes such wealthy neighborhoods as Chelsea and Hudson Yards, voted during its June 22 executive meeting to support the return of the NYPD’s Transportation Bureau to the DOT, citing years of failure to protect vulnerable road users.
“NYPD has been an unreliable partner in pursuing the shared goals of calming the traffic and reducing traffic injuries and fatalities,” leaders of the board wrote to Mayor de Blasio, Council Speaker Corey Johnson and other local elected officials[.]
The article went on to quote a local advocate, who pointed out that it’s not just that the NYPD is bad at making traffic calmer and safer, the cops are actually making things worse:
One local safe-streets advocate, Jehiah Czebotar, who lives in Hells Kitchen, which is in CB4, said he’s seen first hand how poorly police officers respond to street-safety issues and even often make things more dangerous by parking on sidewalks and in bike lanes.
“NYPD has been unresponsive to our community refusing to keep crosswalks clear, making it unsafe and often impossible to cross our streets with our children,” Czebotar said.
The blog goes on to note how traffic citations the NYPD have issued are racist, in that they overwhelmingly target Black and latino people, particularly pedestrians and cyclists. The blog also goes on to explain how local residents have complained before that even in the cases of actual crashes, the NYPD has been achingly slow to respond and often blames victims before a full investigation.
I was surprised that the job of traffic enforcement had been the job of the DOT from the early 1960s to 1996, so I looked up some of the contemporary news coverage of the changeover. The New York Times laid out clearly that the NYPD talked a big game about how it would fix the city using special cop action, like using helicopters:
The division intends to step up enforcement of regulations prohibiting double-parking, the police said, and to increase ticketing of drivers who block intersections and cabdrivers who clog traffic while picking up pedestrians. Plans also include deploying helicopters to track traffic flow and increasing the role of the mounted unit, whose traffic duties were curtailed in 1963.
“We’re going to target every gridlock spot,” said Assistant Chief Michael Scagnelli, who heads the new division.
The head of the Department of Transportation at that time, Lucius J. Riccio, even called out in a separate NY Times op-ed that this plan wouldn’t work and that it’d be expensive, too:
Two decades ago, when traffic agents were created, the goal was largely budgetary. Higher-paid police officers would be replaced by lower-paid civilians. Now the city is reversing that process. More than 350 traffic agents, each of whom costs the city about $30,000 a year, will eventually be out of a job, replaced by police officers who cost about $60,000.
This reverse civilianization is expensive. It will cost the taxpayers an additional $10 million a year.
In a tone that echoes today’s calls to defund the police, Riccio explained that this money could be going elsewhere:
If you add up the savings, they could be enough to slice 10 cents off the subway fare, or reduce the class size in dozens of schools.
Jalopnik has reached out to the NYPD for comment, and will update if we hear back.
The whole thing is interesting because, well, the whole thing is kind of a farce. Anyone who has seen a crash in the city knows that it wasn’t because a cop wasn’t watching, it has been because of bad street design. Forcing bicyclists into unprotected bike lines if at all, running high-speed traffic on avenues and boulevards next to unprotected sidewalks (look up the twitter account @curbjumpingnyc to see how often cars end up where they’re not supposed to), bad intersections and highways that dump out into residential streets. So much of NYC is just not set up to have cars, bikes, and pedestrians all sharing the same space. We could invest in getting people out of cars, promoting pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure, and ban cars in huge chunks of the city. Instead we put the burden of “traffic safety” on cops, and it doesn’t work.