By Zach Campbell
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Clara Heyworth was struck by a Honda sedan last summer while crossing Vanderbilt Avenue in Fort Greene, by a driver who police suspected of being drunk, and who only had a learner's permit. The NYPD investigation into the crash that eventually took Heyworth's life was initially called off hours after the crash, and then resumed four days after her death, late enough that the skid marks had faded, surveillance videos had been overwritten, and when there was only one witness to be found.
That person is Jacob Stevens, Heyworth's husband, who despite witnessing the entire event only retains an auditory memory of it. Stevens is now suing the NYPD over what he calls its “failure” to properly investigate traffic cases, and over a particular part of the Patrol Guide, the “dead or likely to die” rule, that governs whether or not crashes are investigated based on the condition of the victim.
The rule requires that the NYPD's Accident Investigation Squad (AIS) investigate all cases in which a crash victim is dead or likely to die.
Officers, soon after arriving at the scene, according to reports of the crash, requested assistance from the Accident Investigation Squad, the department of 19 people charged with investigating all crashes city-wide resulting in death or serious injury. At 3:00 AM, a little over an hour after the crash, the AIS investigator called off the investigation, despite the fact that Heyworth was, at the time, undergoing emergency brain surgery at the Bellevue Hospital trauma center.
AIS resumed the investigation four days after Heyworth's death.
The driver of the car, Anthony Webb, was initially given a breathalyzer test, and subsequently arrested after results indicated he was drunk at the time of the crash. Webb was later released after it was discovered that the breathalyzer used had not been calibrated in four years, and that its results were deemed unusable.
Jacob Stevens announced the lawsuit at a rally at City Hall on Monday, lambasting the NYPD for their “dead or likely to die” protocol, that he says has inhibited the investigation of many cases.
“One of the things that I expected — that all of us have a right to expect, as residents of this city — was that a violent death would be investigated, so that we could work out what really happened and who was responsible,” Stevens said in a statement.
Because AIS investigators waited so long to begin the investigation, Stevens said, they missed or lost evidence that would have been crucial in convicting Webb, who only received a violation for driving without a license.
“They came back a couple days later, to take photos of an empty street,” explained Juan Martinez of Transportation Alternatives, an organization that has advocated for more comprehensive investigations into traffic injuries and fatalities. Martinez added that it is unlikely that Webb will be charged with careless driving or anything more.
Stevens is not the only person to sue the NYPD recently for its treatment of traffic fatalities. Still ongoing is a lawsuit between the NYPD and the parents of Mathieu Lefevre, a cyclist who was killed by a crane truck driver in Bushwick last October.
Lefevre's parents sued the NYPD earlier this year for information about the investigation into their son's death, after repeated attempts through other channels. The department originally asserted that no photos of the crash site were taken, and that the AIS camera was broken, only later to produce a collection of photos taken at the scene in response to a request under the state Freedom of Information act, saying that it had been misplaced.
Similarly to the events surrounding the investigation into Clara Hayward's death, AIS failed to gather important evidence at the crash site. Specifically, paint and blood from the point of impact on the crane truck's front bumper were never sampled. Also similar to Hayward's case, the driver that struck Lefevre received nothing more than a traffic violation.
Steven's lawsuit also asserts that the “dead or likely to die” protocol goes against New York State law, which requires that even minor crashes be investigated. Still, said Martinez, with a department made up of 19 people, this kind of enforcement is unlikely.
“There aren't enough cops to do everything the NYPD wants to do—the fact that here are only 19 officers to investigate vehicular crashes,” Martinez added, “they made a choice based on priority.”