Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
One family's struggle to obtain evidence in the death of their son raises a number of questions.
Eighteen months after Superstorm Sandy inundated New York City, thousands of bicycles still sit, rusting, in a warehouse in an obscure corner of Brooklyn.
The bikes, impounded by the New York Police Department for various reasons over the months and years preceding Sandy, languish unclaimed in the Kingsland Avenue facility. According to court documents [PDF], the building was "ordered to be closed” by the NYPD’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration Unit due to storm damage. It's unclear, the papers say, "if and/or when the Kingsland Avenue Warehouse will be re-opened.”
The fate of those bicycles might not have attracted much attention if not for one red Nishiki among them. It was the one that artist Mathieu Lefevre, 30, was riding in Williamsburg when he was hit by a truck driver and killed back in 2011. The driver left the scene, later claiming that he was unaware he had hit a person.
Lefevre’s parents, who live in Canada, have been locked in a battle with the NYPD ever since, seeking the release of evidence withheld from them and charging that the department’s investigation — which resulted in no criminal charges — was slipshod. In 2012, a year after Lefevre was killed, a judge ordered the NYPD to release the documentation the family sought, saying the department "needlessly delayed handing over the documents and other materials." The decision called the stalling tactics "more than agonizing" for the family.
But the red Nishiki, which the family wants to use as evidence in a civil case against the truck's driver and owners, is still out of reach. In court papers [PDF], the police say, "THE ITEM REQUESTED IS NOT AVAILABLE FOR PRODUCTION AT THIS TIME." The department's lawyers filed a motion to quash the subpoena requesting the bike for evidence. There will be a hearing on the matter later today.
"We are still waiting," Mathieu’s mother, Erika Lefevre, told the New York Post. "It is our property. Why is the NYPD not releasing the bike? It could change the outcome."
Since Commissioner Bill Bratton took control of the police department in January, he's pledged to improve community relations. He's also committed to reforming the NYPD's investigations of traffic injuries and fatalities, part of Mayor Bill de Blasio's "Vision Zero" initiative. But the department's continued stonewalling of the Lefevres shows that there’s a long way to go yet.
Keegan Stephan, a bicycle advocate with the group Right of Way, recently visited the Greenpoint warehouse where Lefevre’s bicycle is being held. Stephan had been to the warehouse before, in pre-Sandy days, to reclaim his bike after he was arrested during an Occupy Wall Street protest. He says he later settled a claim of false arrest and wrongful impoundment with the city.
During his previous visit, Stephan said the warehouse was packed with bikes. Some of them, like his, had been seized during arrests. Others had been removed from the street in advance of presidential motorcades and other events requiring extra security measures. Sadly, there's also a collection of cycles of people killed or seriously injured in crashes. People like Mathieu Lefevre.
Stephan says that when he and a friend visited the warehouse recently, the other half of the building (a Department of Records facility), was open and being renovated. To him, that fact raises questions about the NYPD's assertion that the part of the building where the bicycles are stored is inaccessible.
The Lefevres’ lawyer, Steve Vaccaro, noted the inconsistency in a piece on Streetsblog:
The NYPD’s neglect in reopening the Kingsland facility is inexplicable. A visit to the site reveals that Department of Sanitation and Department of Records facilities adjacent to the Kingsland bike facility — which presumably were also flooded during Sandy — are now open for business. Would car owners have been asked to wait over a year, or possibly many years, to retrieve their cars from a flooded tow pound?
Vaccaro says he isn't aware of any other people seeking the return of their bikes. The NYPD did not return a request for comment.
Preventing a grieving family from having access to evidence they want to use in a civil case hardly seems like the best way to change the department's image. Then again, this department has a long tradition of remaining oblivious to and dismissive of outsiders’ perceptions. That’s the attitude that enabled this week's Twitter debacle, in which the NYPD’s #myNYPD hashtag – which they hoped would be used for happy pictures of cops doing good in the community -- was hijacked by people tweeting pictures of police brutality.
Stephan says he hopes the NYPD will change course and make the impounded bikes available to their owners. "Hopefully they’ll open it up," he says. "Things rusted under [former NYPD commissioner Ray] Kelly, but Bratton has a chance to salvage some of them."
Inset image: The NYPD's bike warehouse before Sandy. Photo by Barbara Ross.