NYPD tracks millions of vehicles daily — lawyer says data could help solve more hit-and-runs
In 2020, NYPD detectives solved 28% of fatal hit-and-runs. Lawyer Steve Vaccaro says there's an untapped resource
By John Annese
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — NYPD officers and equipment track the movements of millions of motor vehicles each day — but the cops don’t always crunch the data they collect, and that bothers a lawyer who believes the information should be used to hunt down drivers who flee car crashes.
Steve Vaccaro — who represents vehicle crash victims in injury lawsuits — wants the NYPD to use its license plate database to solve the thousands of cases in which hit-and-run drivers go unpunished.
In 2020, the NYPD arrested only 1 in 20 drivers in nonfatal hit-and-run crashes. Vaccaro, a safe-streets advocate whose legal clients include people badly hurt in vehicle crashes across the city, thinks the NYPD could use its data to bring more hit-and-run drivers to justice.
“They don’t use it for routine hit-and-runs,” Vaccaro said of the data collected by NYPD’s license plate readers and by ticket-writing cops as part of the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, an anti-terrorism surveillance program which for more than a decade has collected data about vehicle movements across the city.
“They only use it for anti-terrorism purposes, for what they consider real criminal investigations — which never are hit-and-run collisions, except in the case of fatal or near-fatal collisions,” Vaccaro said.
Every day, the NYPD collects roughly 3.6 million license plate numbers and their locations, using hundreds of scanning devices throughout the city, said a police officer Vaccaro deposed in 2016. Some scanners are mounted in fixed locations, and some are mounted on police vehicles, the officer said.
“Anywhere NYPD is picking up digital license plates in the city, it goes in one place,” Vaccaro said — a Police Department database of vehicle movements.
Vaccaro says the vehicle movement data would help his lawsuits — and would improve the NYPD’s ability to make arrests in hit-and-runs.
NYPD collision investigation squad detectives in 2020 solved 11 of 39 fatal hit-and-run crashes they investigated, a solve rate of 28%. Squad officers focus on fatal crashes. During the first eight months of 2021 the city saw 45 fatal hit-and-run crashes, already exceeding last year’s total. Cops solved just 13 of them, a rate of 29%.
The NYPD’s record in nonfatal crashes in which people are injured is less than stellar. In 2020, police investigated 6,652 nonfatal hit-and-run crashes and solved 324, a rate of 5%. Most of those crashes are investigated by precinct-level officers.
The first eight months of 2021 saw 5,318 nonfatal hit-and-runs in the city, with 265 of them resulting in arrests, also a rate of 5%.
Fatal hit-and-run crashes can lead to felony arrests — especially if the motorist charged was under the influence of drink or drugs. First-degree vehicular manslaughter can send someone to prison for up to 15 years.
But the charges for hit-and-runs in which someone is injured are less severe, ranging from a low-level misdemeanor to a felony carrying up to four years in prison.
In 2016, as he handled a case involving a client who said he was struck by an NYPD school safety van, Vaccaro deposed NYPD Sgt. Specialist Ronald Myers, who who explained the scope of the Police Department’s license plate scanning capabilities.
“We have 292 fixed plate readers throughout the city, as weII as 247 mobile plate readers,” Myers said at the time.
“Now, that mobile plate reader can be affixed on an unmarked vehicle as well as a marked patrol car, and they basicaIly travel throughout the city reading every plate in sight,” Myers said.
The plate readers scan about 3.6 million cars a day, and store the information in a database. The NYPD also collects plate numbers from the myriad parking summons issued every day, and puts those numbers into its database as well, Myers said.
Additionally, cops carrying NYPD-issued tablets receive an alert if a scanner spots a “vehicle of interest” like a stolen car, according to NYPD policy documents published in April. The department keeps that data for five years, and limits access to a small group of authorized users.
In the case involving the school safety van, the NYPD used its database to try to find a license plate number provided by a witness for a marked police van involved in the crash. But the number of digits provided by the witness was off by one, and the search came up empty.
Vaccaro and his client ultimately settled the case for $90,000.
The NYPD defended its use of license plate readers.
“The assertion that LPRs [license plate readers] are only used for fatal or near fatal collisions is false. It’s an investigative tool that may be and is used during the course of investigations into any and all crime classifications, when appropriate,” said Sgt. Edward Riley, an NYPD spokesman.
The NYPD didn’t respond to follow-up questions about how often it used the database in hit-and-run investigations.
Vaccaro’s proposed use of the license plate database concerns civil liberties advocate Albert Fox Cahn, who said it would lead to “an Orwellian scenario where any officer can track any vehicle at any time.”
“What will stop officers to use that access to track romantic partners, people they are dating, people that they have business relationships with?” asked Cahn, the executive director of the Manhattan-based Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.
“When we continue to expand systems like automated license plate readers, we’re creating an inescapable tracking net that can follow any nearly car at any time in any block of the city,” Cahn said. “To me it’s terrifying how a department like the NYPD can weaponize that data to target New Yorkers of color, particularly our Black community.”
Vaccaro said he’s also concerned with police surveillance — but he says that if the police have the information in hand, it should be available to him.
“If in fact, they’re collecting the information, why not use it?” he asked. “I share concerns about cameras everywhere. But if the cameras are up, I want the footage if it’s relevant to my work.”
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