Manhattan Institute

License to Scofflaw

Contempt for traffic laws epitomizes New York’s culture of public corruption and abuse.

Shocking video taken on the West Side Highway near 24th Street shows a maroon Dodge Challenger accelerate from a standstill and deliberately ram a man standing on the road holding his bicycle, pushing him several yards down the road.

Liz Gonzales, a writer for the website Barstool Sports, shot the video last Thursday after the driver sped through a red light, nearly striking the bicyclist as well as Gonzales herself, who was crossing the road legally. When confronted, the driver snatched the bicyclist’s cell phone out of his hands, then tried to run him over when he refused to leave without getting it back.

When the police arrived, Gonzales wrote, “They pretty much just showed up to clear up the traffic jam and let the muscle car bruh drive off . . . No tickets. No arrest.” She commented, “I don’t often side with bikers, but this particular biker was NOT at fault in any way.” An NYPD spokesman contradicted Gonzales’s account and additional video evidence, claiming that the driver was not arrested only because he left before police could respond.

The NYPD’s leniency spurred speculation that the driver may have himself been a cop or “cop-adjacent,” and that police may have let him go upon seeing a parking placard for city employees on his windshield. The speculation wasn’t far off: Gothamist identified the driver as Brauley de la Rosa, an FDNY fireman who has racked up 11 tickets for speeding in school zones since 2017. Only after four days of mounting outrage was de la Rosa arrested on Monday, charged with reckless endangerment and driving with a suspended license.

De la Rosa has proved himself a menace to public safety and should, at minimum, forfeit his car and license for years, but his crime is an uncommonly appalling example of a broader problem: New York’s public employees too often consider themselves unbound by traffic laws.

Parking placards provide the clearest example of this contempt for the law. More than 125,000 city employees have placards that entitle them to free street parking at work. Placards are a convenient way for politicians to reward public employees—Bill de Blasio handed out 50,000 to teachers and other public school workers before the 2017 election—and their worth stems largely from a virtual lack of punishment for misuse. The Twitter account @placardabuse posts dozens of examples every day of placards—often expired, photocopied, or in unauthorized vehicles—used to park in bike and bus lanes, block fire hydrants and crosswalks, and turn sidewalks and parks into private parking lots. Among the worst abusers are high-ranking officials. MTA board member Charles Moerdler, for example, has repeatedly abused his placard to park in Manhattan bus lanes and loading zones; Marty Golden, a former state senator, even drove in a bicycle lane to get around a traffic jam and then brandished his placard to impersonate a cop and threaten to arrest a bicyclist who photographed him.

Many of the city’s worst traffic scofflaws are cops themselves. An investigation by the website Streetsblog found that 38 percent of NYPD officers’ personal cars have multiple serious moving violations—twice the rate of civilian car owners. One officer racked up 75 traffic tickets in just two years. NYC transportation activists have noted that cars with police placards frequently have defaced license plates or tinted license-plate covers—illegal attempts to obscure the plates from red-light or speed-control cameras.

Moreover, police officers routinely abuse their authority to protect themselves and their friends, refusing to ticket illegally parked cars with NYPD placards on the dashboard (or other police paraphernalia, such as reflective vests or NYPD baseball caps). In one case, journalists for Streetsblog reported a pickup truck, with a Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association card on the dashboard, parked in a No Standing zone in Queens. (PBA cards are handed out by the hundreds of thousands for officers to distribute to friends and family.) After three hours, the complaint was closed, with a note that officers “observed no evidence of the violation.” One Queens community board member commented that the NYPD routinely closes his reports of illegal parking without even sending officers to look. The NYPD’s self-protection sometimes goes beyond mere refusal to enforce the law: one contributor to @placardabuse has filmed police officers in Central Park trying to intimidate him out of photographing illegally parked cars bearing NYPD placards and defaced license plates.

The costs of public employees’ high-handedness are multiple. Blocked bus and bike lanes waste bus riders’ time and force bicyclists to swerve into deadly traffic; cars parked in crosswalks and in front of curb cuts prevent wheelchair users from crossing the street; New Yorkers pay higher taxes to make up for lost parking-meter revenue.

Scofflaw civil servants, furthermore, erode the rule of law. New York was saved from urban decay through recognizing that tolerance of minor crimes invites worse criminality by showing the law to be unworthy of respect. This notion can only be undercut when public workers spare themselves the expense of legal parking by endangering the citizens who pay their salaries.

Mayor de Blasio has done little to stem illegal parking, and, having turned his attention to a hopeless presidential campaign, he is unlikely to find more initiative soon. But the next mayor should champion strong reforms: transfer the NYPD’s authority over parking enforcement to a new city department, answerable directly to elected officials; sign city council member Brad Lander’s Reckless Driver Accountability Act, which would impound incorrigibly dangerous drivers’ cars; and, as my colleague Nicole Gelinas has recommended, revoke all current parking placards and institute a far more rigorous process to have them reissued. Until the city breaks the culture of entitlement among city workers, aggressive, entitled drivers like Brauley de la Rosa will remain a threat to New Yorkers’ safety.

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