The first crash victims of the year, Thelma Reid and Donovan Gibbon, were killed by a speeding Dodge Ram driver at 5:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day. The operator fled on foot, police said, abandoning his truck and its two passengers under the elevated tracks of the A train.
The crash occurred steps from the couple’s Far Rockaway home, where Reid, 57, had raised two daughters as a single mother, before marrying Gibbon, 60. Both were Jamaican immigrants who worked in food service at JFK Airport, pillars in their church and community.
“My mother was my best friend,” Trisha Williams, one of Reid’s daughters, told Gothamist. “We miss her every day.”
More than six months after the crash, the driver who killed Reid and Gibbon remains at large. Despite repeated calls and visits to the police department, the family says they’ve struggled to get a single update about the investigation.
“My faith hasn’t broken yet,” Williams said. “Her birthday has passed, Mother’s Day passed, if a year comes and I still hear nothing, I can’t tell you I’ll have the same faith.”
The odds that the NYPD solves the case are slim. Even in the most severe incidents, drivers who leave the scene of a crash in New York City are rarely ever caught. As traffic deaths continue to rise, the toll of unsolved hit-and-runs appears to be worsening.
During the first half of this year, there were 47 fatal or near-fatal hit-and-run crashes on city streets, the highest total in any six month period since at least 2015, when the department was first required to start publishing the data.
Of those cases, the Collision Investigation Squad has made 11 arrests — a rate of just 23%. By comparison, the department’s clearance rate for murders last year was 54%.
Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero efforts, which include cracking down on reckless drivers, a higher percent of fleeing drivers are getting away with the crime. Police made arrests in less than 1% of hit-and-run cases — including both property damage and personal injury — last year, the lowest rate on record.
Hit-and-run investigations can be labor intensive, requiring police to speak with witnesses and gather evidence to find a missing driver. Sometimes, they require recreating a crime scene. In most cases, they’re not treated as a priority by the NYPD, according to Daniel Flanzig, an attorney that frequently represents crash victims.
“Any time a death involves a vehicle, it’s looked at as different from a death involving a knife or a handgun,” Flanzig said. “We don’t think about criminality behind the wheel except when there are drugs and alcohol.”
In response to similar criticism in 2013, the NYPD vowed to revamp their crash unit by adding officers and investigating more cases. But as of last year, the unit had fewer detectives investigating fewer cases than they did before the overhaul. An offer from the City Council to spend $2.3 million on hiring an additional 15 detectives was turned down by the NYPD in 2019.
At a Council hearing earlier this year, Lieutenant Jagdeep Singh, who heads CIS, revealed there were 22 officers and four sergeants currently assigned to the unit, which investigated 374 crashes in 2020. “We’re able to give each investigation the amount of time it requires, and we investigate it thoroughly,” he said.
In 2014, the City Council passed legislation, hailed by advocates, requiring police to fine hit-and-run drivers up to $15,000. But in the years since, the city and the NYPD have have done little to publicize the penalty, according to its sponsor, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, and it remains rarely enforced.
Since 2015, just seven drivers have been fined for leaving the scene after killing or seriously injuring a person. Each case was later dismissed in administrative court. (A spokesperson for the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings could not immediately say why the cases were dismissed).
Safe streets advocates say there should be a broader effort to convince drivers that they’ll face consequences for hit-and-runs, similar to the successful campaign to discourage drunk driving.
“The impression that the general public have about the threat is absolutely key,” said Marco Conner DiAquoi, the deputy director at Transportation Alternatives. “But the NYPD has completely squandered this.”
Even if hit-and-run drivers are apprehended by police, there are other reasons why they may not face discipline. Under a controversial legal precedent, known as the “rule of two,” prosecutors are unlikely to bring charges of criminal negligence against deadly drivers unless they have committed two misdemeanors.
While it’s still a felony to leave the scene of a crash with a “known injury,” drivers who claim they didn’t know they hit a person are often allowed to walk free. State legislation aiming to make it easier to bring criminal penalties against hit-and-run drivers did not make it out of the Assembly this year.
Inquiries to the State Assembly Leader Carl Heastie about the bill were not returned. The NYPD also did not response to requests for comment on this story, including a request to interview a member of CIS.
In an email, Mitch Schwartz, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said the administration was “very much on the case” of rising hit-and-run deaths in New York City.
He pointed to efforts to reduce speed limits on several high-crash corridors in the outer boroughs, as well as the mayor’s pledge to fully redesign a stretch of McGuinness Boulevard in Brooklyn following a deadly crash there in May.
In that case, a local public school teacher, Matthew Jensen, was killed by a Rolls Royce driver while walking home from a family member’s birthday. The driver fled the scene, and the investigation remains ongoing.