How the NYPD, the DOT, and the Justice System Have Failed My Sister: Part Three

One of Lauren’s favorite hobbies: photography.

This is part three in a series of four articles. Part one describes what happened the day after my older sister was killed by a driver on April 15, 2016 in Brooklyn, NY and part two chronicles the subsequent aftermath in the following weeks.

As time moved forward, the story surrounding Lauren’s crash day became clearer and more baffling. Classon Avenue was not her typical route; she had chosen Classon to avoid construction being done on her normal route to work. Lauren’s work schedule changed on the day of her crash, and she was called into work early. A confluence of unpredictable circumstances occurred Friday morning — events one could say shaped an unforeseen path for my older sister.

In May, I found myself on another long transcontinental flight landing me back in Brooklyn, where I undertook a new goal — that of obtaining the last of Lauren’s possessions — her bike.

Since her crash occurred within the boundaries of Clinton Hill, my sister’s bike was temporarily possessed by the 88th Precinct’s evidence room. The retrieval required the presence of the police officer handling our case and the correct documentation showing the bike was no longer instrumental to the investigation.

On this day, the officer handling the case was not available, so he requested that another detective working our case, Corey Fenley, be made available to present both voucher and release form.

During an investigation, the family of a deceased person possesses no right to view pictures of the aftermath or evidence at the scene. Instead, the NYPD gives you a phone number and vague instructions on how to gain access to this information. In our case and most cases, obtaining any investigative information related to the crash required filing a FOIL request, which took us many months to receive. This bureaucratic hurdle promises plenty of anticipation in moments like this, when one waits to see the physical representation of what happened to a family member on the day of their crash.

Mounting the steps of the 88th Precinct, I entered the precinct foyer — a small room where you speak through a tiny slot to a police officer who sits on the other side of a glass wall.

After waiting an exceptionally long time, the moment finally arrived — Lauren’s bike was ushered from a back room. Fighting back tears, I surveyed the damage done to my sister’s bike. A bent front wheel, missing basket, and twisted bike rack were the most noticeable wounds to Lauren’s bike.

It was unmovable. The front wheel warped to the point of dysfunction. Not knowing what actually happened that day or how Lauren was hit created numerous violent scenarios in my brain.

The precinct was noisy and chaotic, lots of comings and goings, but I stood alone, grasping one of my sister’s bike handles wishing it was her that I could hold instead. I gripped the leather handle, squeezed it, and told Lauren how sorry I was.

Lauren, I am sorry you had to endure this much pain. I am sorry no one is being held accountable. I am sorry you died alone — without family or friends by your side. I am sorry your life was stolen from you.
Picture of Lauren’s bike after retrieving it from the 88th Precinct in Brooklyn.

So, it had taken more than a month for Lauren’s bike to be released from evidence at the 88th Precinct, and on the following Saturday, Lauren’s bike would be transformed into the memorial that exists today at the northwest corner of Classon and Lexington.

If it weren’t for the Ghost Bike Project NYC, Lauren would be invisible in the public domain. Once her blood had been washed away by passing rain, Lauren would have been permanently and conveniently erased from the landscape of Clinton Hill where she died.

In rendering cyclist fatalities more visible with white bikes, the Ghost Bike Project helps transform assumptions about who is most vulnerable on the road and how many lives have been taken due to collisions with vehicles. As somber and sometimes violent reminders of lives lost to traffic crashes, these white objects interrupt the urban landscape and push cyclist deaths from the fringes of the roadway to the forefront in public spaces.

In my mind, ghost bikes symbolically question the hierarchical status of certain roadway users. Who lives? Who dies? Who gets to tell the story?

Lauren’s roommate and I transforming Lauren’s bike into a ghost bike.
Fruit and tokens left at Lauren’s ghost bike by passersby.

Curiously, Lauren’s permanent ghost bike has had mixed reception in the Clinton Hill neighborhood where her death occurred. Some individuals see this bike as an inconvenience, because it causes them too much pain to think of the tragedy every day. Others appreciate and talk to the memorial as if it is an extension of Lauren herself. While some individuals leave tokens, fruit, and little candies, others deface or vandalize Lauren’s bike. As a memorial, Lauren’s ghost bike is an emblem of both acceptance and repudiation within the local community — celebrated and despised. As an object, it parallels the greater relationship many cyclists have to other roadway users — some road users tolerate and accept cyclists and some view them as a nuisance.

In multiple ways, the summer of 2016 did not feel like the normal celebratory break one anticipates every year. It felt vacuous and empty compared to the prior summer, when Lauren and I had met for a five-day impromptu reunion.

The rest of summer 2016 was spent working on two goals:

  • An “Accident Report” amendment by the Collision Investigation Squad (CIS)
  • A Classon Avenue bike lane petition

Continually pestering the CIS appeared to be my family’s new preoccupation. We wanted the initial report to be corrected and we wanted to see evidence from the investigation. It wasn’t until almost 2 months later that an amended report was finally published:

Then, continued on another page:

As indicated in the amended police report, Lauren was traveling northbound on Classon Avenue — traveling lawfully with traffic — when the driver turned left onto Lexington Avenue. Many of the dehumanizing labels remained the same: vehicle #1, vehicle #2. However, they did appropriately name my sister a “bicyclist,” which does animate my sister as a person, not another vehicle.

Within the description, distancing language still implies that she was hit by the car, not the person driving the car. It appears as though once you enter a vehicle, your identity becomes that of the vehicle — your actions dissociate from personhood and transform into the fault of an inanimate object.

Thankfully, the amended report does describe the crash with more detail in using specific parts of the vehicle like “front driver side fender” and “rear passenger side tire.” While rendering the initial story less vague does help paint a clearer picture of what “officially” happened on April 15, 2016, it does not excuse the benign language that still pervades the amended report.

Ticket summons issued to the driver who killed my sister.

With the release of the amended report, we asked if the Brooklyn D.A. would pursue criminal charges against the driver. However, after a conversation with Assistant D.A. Craig Esswein, we had been told there must be two aggravating factors to charge the driver criminally, otherwise known as “the rule of two.” In the case against the driver that killed my sister, only one aggravating factor could be found: Failure to Exercise Due Care (VTL 1146 (d)). Under this violation, the driver could possibly incur some or all the following:

  • a fine of up to $1,000
  • a maximum of 15 days in jail
  • a license revocation, but it could be appealed after 30 days of issuance

My family and I inquired when a court date would be determined, and according to the police officer handling our case, notification of the court date would not occur until two weeks before the hearing — a financial inconvenience for a family who has traveled across country at least four times at this point.

We only received the amended report from the police department at the end of May. Any other information such as photos, interviews, or video evidence would be obtained by filing a FOIL request. And since FOIL requests take a couple of months to process, my attention shifted towards a Classon Avenue bike lane petition, which served as a productive channel to get positive results while my family and I waited for the arrival of the FOIL documents.

To understand Classon Avenue, it’s important to understand its history. Bike lanes typically exist on the left side of the street, but in the case of Classon Avenue, no lane existed at the time of my sister’s crash. In 2012, Community Board 3, currently chaired by Richard Flateau, rejected the proposal of a bike lane and painted an extended parking space instead. In lieu of a protected bike lane, this extended parking space is the only protection for cyclists traveling on Classon.

Urban planners and the DOT are seemingly trepidatious when it comes to making concrete changes on streets where safe cycling infrastructure is needed. Even though their input is supposed to be advisory, the DOT will often defer decisions concerning street safety improvements to community boards. Consequently, a few vocal individuals within this group vote on decisions affecting thousands of commuters, and in fewer hands, the outcomes of community board meetings often result in parking taking precedence over safety (like with Classon Avenue in 2012). In the case of Community Board 3, transparency in discussing street safety concerns is far from the top of their priority list. Based on my personal observations, political entities favor stalling or impeding street changes as a symbol of their inflexibility and power. Consequently, commuters who do not drive cars are left vulnerable on their streets.

Classon Avenue borders one of NYC’s few 20mph Slow Zones, and turning left onto Lexington Avenue marks the beginning of that neighborhood slow zone. According to local residents whom my family and I interviewed, this intersection at Classon and Lexington Avenue has been a dangerous spot for a lot of parents who walk their kids to and from school. Despite sign postings, drivers continue to drive recklessly and above the speed limit along this stretch of road.

In an effort to further visualize the layout of Classon Avenue at the time of Lauren’s crash, here is a still shot from Google Maps:

Image obtained from Google Maps pointing northbound on Classon Avenue with Lexington Avenue as the next cross street.

Furthermore, here is a video created by Bedford-Stuyvesant activist on Classon Avenue four blocks north of the Lexington intersection. He happened to be filming the same morning that my sister was struck and killed:

Video recorded by Shawn Onsgard, Bed-Stuy community activist (YouTube).

According to Vehicle Traffic Law (VTL) RCNY § 4–12 (p), cyclists must ride on the right side of the street if the road is less than forty feet wide in NYC. Contrary to this rule, Lauren rode in the widened parking space, which as described earlier, is located on the left side of Classon Avenue.

As suggested by residents in Clinton Hill and the officer handling Lauren’s case, the majority of cyclists ride on the left side of Classon Avenue due to the extended parking space. It is no surprise that Lauren rode on this side of the street, as the extra parking space buffer allows some protection to cyclists who may feel hemmed in by vehicles if they ride on the right.

Classon Avenue, as a designated DOT cycling route, accommodates many cyclists and cars as they make their way to work each day. Even though the majority of cyclists riding on Classon use that extended parking space as a bike lane, that space is deceitful and negligent on behalf of the DOT. It creates the illusion of protection, but does not actually provide any lawful rights to cyclists.

The DOT treating cyclists as people who must fend for themselves on the road is disgraceful and negligent. Through the support of Transportation Alternatives, and in particular Jessie Singer and Luke Ohlson, I launched a petition for a Classon Avenue Bike Lane in Lauren’s memory to combat this injustice.

As a productive way to channel my personal grief into action, I sought the installation of a Class 2 protected bike lane on a part of Classon Avenue where there was a lack of safe bicycle infrastructure. Within 2 days of launching the petition, over 5,000 people had signed to ask for a bike lane in Lauren’s memory. As it stands now, the petition now has 5,695 signatures.

Screenshot of petition status as of August 3, 2017.

In a place where the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) failed to define separate spaces for cyclists and drivers, this petition succeeded in conveying a sense of urgency to the DOT to accommodate the increasing amount of cyclists on NYC streets by providing them a safe way to travel.

After less than one year since launching the petition, the NYC DOT plans to paint the Classon Avenue bike lane in the coming days. Even though, the petition has succeeded in its goal of better bike infrastructure on Classon Avenue, it also illustrates infrastructural shortcomings and a political dissonance that often manufacture neglect in place of listening to the needs of citizens. Moreover, instead of a class 2 bike lane, the DOT has decided to paint a normal bike lane which transitions into a sharrows when there is not enough “space” to have a separate bike lane.

As a small victory, this lane will provide a protected legal space for cyclists to ride, but in the greater scheme of aggressive driving culture, this lane only creates an engineered change on a street which should truly be designed to accommodate and protect the shifting population of road users who choose to cycle and walk instead of drive.

To be continued…

Written by Danielle Davis (@daniellekdavis8), the younger sister of Lauren Davis. This is the third piece of a four part series about the life and death of a New York City cyclist, my sister, and the torture my family and I have gone through as we try to seek justice after her death.