Yoav Gonen, Suhail Bhat, and Harry Siegel, The City
NYPD car chases have skyrocketed under Mayor Eric Adams, part of a deliberate but unofficial shift in enforcement tactics that puts civilians and cops in harm’s way, two police sources told THE CITY.
The police gave chase 304 times in the first three months of 2023, a nearly 600% jump from the same period last year, according to an analysis of vehicle pursuit calls THE CITY conducted from NYPD 911 data.
With this dramatic increase, the number of vehicle pursuits this year has already surpassed the 2022 total count of 214 chases.
From January 2018 to March 2023, there were 851 vehicle pursuits, with 42% of them occurring between December 2022 and March 2023, the last month of available data.
This escalation in the use of the aggressive tactic has come as part of an enforcement push overseen by NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell, who began that role in December 2022, one current and one former NYPD member told THE CITY.
That shift, however, has happened without any change to the NYPD’s formal policies and guidelines that emphasize pursuits in the city should be a last resort.
The office of state Attorney General Letitia James has launched six investigations or preliminary assessments of police pursuits that resulted in civilian deaths since August 2022, according to a spokesperson.
In one incident being assessed, a 22-year-old and his passenger were killed last August when the all-terrain vehicle (ATV) they were riding on crashed into a truck after they were chased by cops.
In an incident last week that is under review, the driver of an allegedly stolen vehicle pursued by police struck and killed a 74-year-old pedestrian in The Bronx.
Among the most active of the units conducting pursuits are so-called Community Response Teams, the plainclothes officers in polo shirts and khakis who drive unmarked vehicles and who have been tasked since June 2022 with carrying out increasingly aggressive “quality of life” enforcement.
The unit launched with just over a dozen citywide personnel last year and initially focused on ATVs and motorbikes illegally driving on city streets, cars with temporary plates, and stolen vehicles. But in recent months, the CRT’s assignment has grown, adding 150 officers spread across every borough patrol.
Over the weekend, Adams, wearing khakis, visited one of these new units in The Bronx and on Instagram touted their work of getting guns off the street — which is the prime task of the reconstituted anti-crime units now known as Neighborhood Safety Teams.
When Chell took over as chief of patrol in December 2022, the NYPD official noted, the number of chases increased to 53, up from 32 in November. In January, it surged to 133 — meaning there were more pursuits that month than in all of 2018 and 2019 combined.
“Chell’s going out himself. On a Friday night at three in the morning, he’s out there,” said the current NYPD official. “It’s just an aggressive tenor now that’s reckless. I’ve never seen it like this.”
It’s a focus that apparently predates his elevation to chief of patrol. Last August, when Chell was deputy chief, he reportedly “injured his knees, hands and elbows” falling to the ground when an ATV drove into him as its rider tried to flee from police. The incident occurred during a “quality of life initiative” to shut down the FDR Drive in Manhattan in response to reports of a group of unlicensed riders weaving in and out of traffic.
The NYPD Patrol Guide states that pursuits “must be terminated when the danger to the public outweighs the benefits of apprehending the perpetrator,” and that officers should use tactics that reduce the likelihood of pursuits.
But the former NYPD official said the department has not performed the type or number of vehicle pursuits that are happening now in at least three decades.
“When somebody runs, they chase them — and they’ll chase them pretty much forever until somebody crashes,” the former official said.
Fatal Bridge Crash
In late May, 36–year-old Samuel Williams was killed in a collision on his dirt motorbike on the University Heights Bridge between Manhattan and The Bronx after getting caught up in a police chase involving unmarked vehicles.
His family is still piecing together the details of what happened, according to family attorney Jaime Santana. Witnesses told him one of the undercover cars swerved across a double-yellow line and head-on toward Williams, causing the collision.
“The sad part about this is that if Samuel were, if he would have been stopped or had been stopped that day in a safe manner, they probably would have taken his bike, he would have been given a summons or a desk appearance ticket, and it would have been addressed in court — he would have gone home,” said Santana.
“They’re putting the lives of other pedestrians, other motorists, the individuals on the motorcycle, and even their own lives — these officers — at risk for a desk appearance ticket,” he added. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
NYPD officials told Bronx 12, which first reported on Williams’ death, that cops tried to pull Williams over but that he wouldn’t comply — and that he was the one swerving into traffic.
Police officials did not respond to a half-dozen questions sent by THE CITY regarding the incident.
Queens Scooter Incident
Police have given conflicting explanations for the origins of a pursuit that occurred in September 2022 in Jamaica, Queens that ended with a 34-year-old man on a scooter slamming into a marked police SUV that suddenly moved into an intersection and blocked his path forward.
Video shows the 103rd Precinct SUV stopped at a four-way intersection before moving forward just enough to block the roadway and suddenly stop.
Scooter driver Love Olatunji-Ojo, of Brooklyn, had only seconds to react — and wasn’t able to avoid a full-on collision that was so forceful the scooter burst into flames, according to his attorney, Joshua Dayan.
“He suffered injuries that will carry with him for the rest of his life,” said Dayan, who filed a lawsuit in Queens Supreme Court last year against the city and NYPD.
He said Olatunji-Ojo, the 34-year-old father of a young child, had multiple surgeries, broke multiple bones and suffered severe burns from the crash.
Cops arrested Olatunji-Ojo on nine charges, including riding without license plates, insurance and a helmet. They also searched his fanny pack after the collision and say they found baggies of cocaine.
In a damage report filed over the bashed and burned police SUV, cops claim Olatunji-Ojo was first pursued after being spotted by an unmarked police vehicle driving away from a location where a gunshot detection device known as ShotSpotter had registered activity.
The report claimed the marked SUV at the intersection of Merrick Boulevard and Liberty Avenue “was motionless, with its lights on, awaiting to spot the moped,” and claimed the driver of the scooter “did not attempt to swerve around the marked RMP (radio motor patrol car) and drove right into” it.
Video of the incident shows the SUV did not have its flashing lights on.
In the criminal complaint filed in Queens court, 103rd Precinct officer Sean Bartlett says he was in an unmarked vehicle when he saw Olatunji-Ojo driving without a license plate or helmet — and that’s what sparked him to pursue the vehicle.
Bartlett said he activated his lights and sirens and told the scooter driver to “stop,” but that Olatunji-Ojo continued to drive and weave between lanes before striking “a marked police vehicle making a left turn.”
The video does not show the SUV moving to make a left turn.
Attorney Dayan disputed that Olatunji-Ojo even knew he was being pursued by police, and took issue with police claims that Olatunji-Ojo made no effort to avoid driving into the side of the police cruiser.
“If my client was to see the car, you best believe he would stop his vehicle because he almost died,” Dayan told THE CITY. “The accident was caused not by any recklessness on my client’s end but, frankly, on the recklessness of the NYPD to stop a person in a way that almost killed him.”
One of the factors that may be contributing to the boost in vehicle pursuits is a significant increase in car stops this year, according to data that the NYPD only began to track in January 2022 after being compelled to by City Council legislation.
In the first quarter of this year, the number of vehicle stops by the NYPD rose 25% — to 195,789 — from the fourth quarter of 2022, and 11% from the first quarter of 2022. Black and Hispanic drivers account for the vast majority of these stops, according to THE CITY’s analysis of NYPD’s quarterly vehicle stop reports.
“Given the number of total stops we’re seeing it’s no surprise that there’s a significant increase in pursuits, and that raises all kinds of concerns. Because pursuits are dangerous, particularly in a dense urban environment like New York City,” Christopher Dunn, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told THE CITY.
Chell and other top NYPD officials haven’t been shy about touting their aggressive approach to enforcing quality of life complaints — particularly regarding ATVs.
In a 38-minute promotional video for the NYPD posted online in December 2022, Chell said the new tactics resulted in the seizure of 15,000 ATVs and vehicles with illegal plates.
“We went after ATVs. We went after peddlers. We addressed crime conditions. Our community response team was all over the city of New York,” he says in the video. “I will tell you this: It has been highly, highly successful and has gained momentum into 2023 crime campaigns.”
In recent weeks, NYPD reps and Chell have taken to TV to praise the work and success of the Community Response Teams, including on a ride-along with an ABC news crew that captured a vehicle chase in action.
Last week, a vehicle pursuit that started in Manhattan ended when the target of the chase dropped from an 80-foot elevated highway near Bogota, New Jersey, critically injuring the man.
And on Wednesday, a video showed Chell leading a massive police crackdown on July 4th in the Soundview section of The Bronx that witnesses said was sparked by an alleged shooting, illegal fireworks and a slew of double-parked cars.
The video starts with a person in the midst of a crowd of officers body-checking a man who’s riding a motorcycle past a line of police — causing the man and the bike to crash to the pavement.
The man on the bike is then seen being arrested, with blood dripping on his face and elbow, while the man who knocked him off the bike is not accosted.
The NYPD press office didn’t respond to more than a dozen questions about the data and about specific incidents, and didn’t offer an explanation for the surge in vehicle chases when asked.
The current NYPD official called the top-level encouragement for aggressive enforcement and police pursuits “reckless shit.”
“Of course all the young men that are police officers are risk-prone because that’s why they became police officers, to catch the bad guys. But that’s the responsibility of us in management, to be the adults in the room,” the official said.
“And when they’re not doing that, [but] in fact encouraging — giving awards for these guys or giving detective shields to the CRT guys, the tan-pants guys — that’s definitely sending a signal that this is the behavior you want to encourage.”
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