It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that Los Angeles, a city of automobiles, is experiencing a horrific epidemic of hit and runs that only seem to get more and more appalling. 

Local news organizations are slowly getting better at covering collisions where the driver has fled. LA Weekly, in print and online, has gone above and beyond by actively calling out the LAPD and city government to address the problem, via their coverage, which paginates for dozens of incident reports and calls for action. On Thursday, July 24, LACBC posted an article describing that the LAPD would be presenting their report to the LA City Hall Public Safety Committee the next morning along with proposals for improving the situation. Hooray!

Unfortunately, the report was deeply flawed in how the LAPD determined their supporting statistics from the available data. This centered around framing the report on hit and run crimes vs miles traveled.  The standard metric is incidents per capita.  In our opinion, the LAPD’s choice suggests that the priority of the LAPD is to keep vehicles moving unhindered rather than create a safe environment for residents.  It also skews the statistics, relative to other cities nationwide, to give the appearance of fewer hit and runs because of the unusually high number of miles locals travel due to sprawl.

With less than 24 hours notice, the burden of jobs, other things to do we organized a special LA Bike Train to City hall; representing as a unified group to witness the report by LAPD, respond to their suggestions and offer our voices. Our group included Don Ward, from Wolfpack hustle/Midnight Ridazz (and LA transportation advocate of the year in 2011), TJ Flexer, owner of Orange 20 bikes in East Hollywood, Nona Varnado, co-founder of LA Bike Trains and LACBC staff, Charles Dandino, engineer and LA Bike Trains conductor, Steve Issacs of Sweet Ride USA and a handful of other cycling advocates. We met up with Eric Bruins, Policy Director at LACBC.
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The report is criticized as taking a defensive stance rather than simply reporting the problem.  This makes sense as it was generated in response to a story criticizing the LAPD’s handling of these problems, but it solves nothing. The presentation, like the report, from Deputy Chief Mike Downing, seemed to hinge on the appearance of caring. The presenting officer spoke about his concern and empathy for the situation, and then proceeded to also say that  hit and run “accidents” are not tracked, investigated or prosecuted with the same priority as other crimes such as robbery, because robbery is a directed crime.  This statement came under fire based on the following logic: A collision is an accident, however, after a collision has occurred the driver makes the conscious decision to flee the scene.  If, for example, a cyclist is hit and injured by a hit and run driver the similarities to a robbery are undeniable: the driver has made a decision to flee, there is likely bodily harm, and the cyclist will have lost money on medical bills, bicycle repairs, time off work, and possibly be permanently paralyzed or killed.

It should seem self evident; however the report and presentation by the LAPD is just confusing enough for someone not paying close attention to believe that it’s being taken seriously. It’s not. Or as the LA Weekly put it:

In June, LAPD chief Charlie Beck released a controversial hit-and-run report that critics thought was more about public relations damage control on the heels of the Weekly expose than addressing the concerns of Buscaino and bicycling advocates.

One of the primary problems in this situation is the lack of education, structure and awareness within the LAPD and the CA Highway Patrol about exactly what the laws are. The laws are awful, but there isn’t education in place to communicate to officers whatever the current state of those laws are. Don Ward in his 2 minutes was also able to bring up that when collision occur that police officers discourage cyclists from filing a report, telling them that “nothing will come of it” or that it will be long, complicated, expensive and possibly pointless. They then fail to investigate the reports which are filed and for statistical purposes only count collisions that result in something more serious than “property damage.”

While we arrived as an organized group ride comprised of people who have experience with public speaking, I was particularly moved by the blonde woman who attended alone to speak of her experience as a hit and run victim; her primary objection was that the public, civic and state discourse cannot be improved until we remove the term ‘accident’ from the hit and run conversation. She was clearly nervous to be speaking in such a formal situation, but presented a compelling case that was well received by 12th District L.A. Councilman Mitch Englander, chair of the public safety committee.
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One of the primary concerns bicycle advocates have in reversing the trend is that the penalty for a hit and run is less than the penalty for a DUI. The way the law is currently written there is incentive for drivers to flee. As Don Rosenberg’s research suggests, many drivers guilty of hit and run behavior would fail a breathalyzer or be guilty of driving without a valid license. This was the general state of the conversation – most of us got up to speak and asked that hit and run incidents be investigated with the same protocol, priority and follow through as any other violent crime, regardless of the severity of injuries. Do that by: Making the penalty for fleeing the scene of a collision equal (or greater) to a DUI, automatic license revocation and seizure of vehicle.

 

Perhaps the most interesting, as well as infuriating, information that came out of the meeting was not in the LAPD report, but the gaps in policing and current legal recourse, as brought up by several individuals; from advocate Don Ward, to 15th District L.A. Councilman Joe Buscaino, but most intensely from Don Rosenberg, whose son was killed in a hit-and-run in San Francisco, called as an expert witness by Mitch Englander. His personal introduction makes it clear that it is only passionate citizens who can bring about change, as “Quite frankly, the department doesn’t give a damn about this issue.”

 

His findings were extremely simple – so simple it seems incredible city police departments have never put this together. Hit and run incidents are rarely solved.  Most hit and run crimes are committed by people who do not have a license or are driving on a suspended license which elevates their punishment if they are caught.  Furthermore, many hit and runs are committed by drunk drivers but the penalty for a hit and run is significantly less than the penalty for a DUI.  As he mentioned, it’s extremely rare that a society is able to look at a specific class of violent crime and find that a strong majority of offenders all fit the same profile in a way that can actually be addressed to drastically reduce the problem.

 

When the city counsil members questioned Deputy Chief Mike Downing, the conversation seemed to turn to the reasons why the LAPD did not feel that the current system of how hit and runs are handled needed a drastic update. He described an overworked traffic enforcement department and ambiguities that muddled the conversation. To our slight astonishment the, LAPD did mention Critical Mass as why bicyclists don’t get respect by their agency even during a hit-and-run epidemic. Why do we need to talk about this? Because there is a larger historical framing that people outside of the cycling movement still strongly associate with anyone riding a bike in an American city. Critical mass has been a wonderful, then mostly horrible aspect to urban biking that we just can’t get away from. That it appeared in Deputy Chief Mike Downing’s comments means that we haven’t gotten past it, and that many influential members in the  LAPD (and police departments across the nation) still hold all urban cyclists at fault for their feelings about critical mass. Which is bad. And that means that since we’ve sinned in this unpardonable way they’ve institutionalized our marginalization.

 

The good news is that it takes surprisingly few individuals to change things. There are plenty of pro-cycling supporters within the LAPD, but we need to codify that within the department and at the neighborhood, city and state levels. Showing up in a group of your friends, like we did, can have a massive impact on the outcome of these meetings. When your representatives at any level know their constituency is in favor of making streets safe for biking and walking, they’ll start to make it happen.

 

City counsil was sympathetic to the concerns of cyclists.  Mike Bonin of the 11th district was particularly supportive, reaching out to bicycle advocates who arrived early for the committee meeting.  After the report, public response and expert testimony Councilman Mitch Englander suggested that, among other things, “hit and run accidents” should no longer be called accidents because there is nothing accidental about fleeing the scene and to increase the penalty for hit and run offenses. The attitudes and language of the city counsil members was greatly encouraging.

Nona Varnado with contributor Charles Dandino.

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