Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Four friends standing on a sidewalk were struck by a driver who fled, but police closed the case seemingly without even bothering to investigate.
Melody Wu was in New York from California visiting an old school friend. With a couple of other buddies, they had a fun Saturday night at a club in Hell’s Kitchen. But early on the morning of Sunday, July 20, the outing suddenly turned into a nightmare.
"[A]n aggressive fight broke out in the middle of the intersection of 48th St. and 11th Ave," Wu writes in an email. "Soon enough, one of the members of the fight hopped into his car nearby and was swerving at the intersection before he accelerated onto to [the] sidewalk where my friends and I were standing, and hit us."
The driver struck Wu and her three friends, leaving them broken and bleeding on the sidewalk. Then he fled the scene.
All four of the people in Wu’s group had to be transported to the hospital in ambulances. Their injuries ranged from severe road rash to a badly sprained ankle and, in Wu’s case, a dislocated shoulder.
Wu won’t be able to use her arm for another six months. But she knows she and her friends are very lucky. Her medical costs are covered under her insurance. And more importantly (and unlike the victim in a more high-profile road rage incident that happened just a few blocks away the previous week) no one was killed or maimed. In that earlier crash, a cabdriver accelerated onto the sidewalk at 6th Avenue and 49th Street, apparently after a confrontation with a person on a bicycle. He hit a young woman visiting from the United Kingdom, severing her leg. The driver is currently under criminal investigation, and his license to drive a cab may be in danger.
That crash was also in the 18th police precinct, covering the Midtown North area. Patrol officers in the 18th, with some of the heaviest traffic in the city, issued just one speeding ticket last year. Across the city, 274 people died in traffic crashes in 2012.
What really shocked Wu, a 23-year-old urban planning student, was the way the case was handled by the New York Police Department. Though the police came to the crime scene, they didn't interview the victims. Wu tried to follow up, and says she called the 18th Precinct nearly every day so that she could provide a witness account. But the detective assigned to the case wasn’t available until two weeks after the crash. When she did finally reach him, he was no help, she says.
"[H]e was extremely dismissive about the prospects of finding this motorist and claimed that he had ‘50 other cases’ that were on his agenda as well," Wu writes in an email. "The detective even asked me ‘How do you propose I catch this guy?'"
When Wu pointed out that there are numerous luxury car dealers in the immediate vicinity of the crime – presumably outfitted with surveillance cameras – she says the detective refused to give her any information as to how he was pursuing the investigation.
On August 12, two weeks after she "actively reached out" to file a report, she finally got a definitive answer from the detective in charge, although it wasn’t the one she was looking for.
"[H]e simply said, ‘The case is closed, I couldn't find any video surveillance.’ I responded, ‘It's closed? What can I do next? Did you reach out to my other friends who were victims?' His response: ‘It's closed, that's it.’ and hung up on me. I called again, and he hung up on me without any response. He won't take my calls anymore."
The NYPD did not return a request for comment on the case.
The friend who Wu was visiting, Eddie Jo, confirmed her story. He says he was so dazed at the scene after he was hit that he couldn't think about making a statement to the police then. He ended up going to the precinct to get the crash report so that he could file to have his medical expenses reimbursed under a program called the Motor Vehicle Accident Indemnification Corporation, something he was eligible for as a New York resident. He learned about the MVAIC not from the police, but from a friend.
"They were no help at all," he says of the NYPD. "We had to do everything ourselves." No one asked him for his account of the incident when he was at the precinct.
Earlier this year, the New York police announced they were going to step up their investigation of traffic crimes, dropping the use of the term "accident" and substituting "crash," beefing up the number of officers assigned to such crimes, and looking into more crashes that don’t result in death. But as Wu’s experience demonstrates, some are still getting brushed under the carpet.
Would the investigation into the case of Melody Wu and her friends have been different if they had been hit by bullets fired by an angry person waving a gun around? You'd think so. But a car can also be a lethal weapon when it is used in rage, as it apparently was in this case.
"I am extremely disheartened that this is the type of protocol the detective squad conducts," writes Wu. "He NEVER made an effort to inform or contact the other victims (my friends) ... He NEVER explained to me why he chose to close the case. This is unacceptable."
Weeks after the crash, Jo is still haunted by what happened. "Getting hit by a car is a really shitty experience," he says. "Then we didn’t get any help. And now we know that the guy who did it is still out there, just living his life."