Attorney General James’ Office of Special Investigation Releases Report on Death of Ronald Anthony Smith
NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James’ Office of Special Investigation (OSI) today released its report on the death of Ronald Anthony Smith on April 7, 2022 in Brooklyn. Following a thorough and comprehensive investigation, which included crash reconstruction analysis, review of body-worn camera (BWC) and security camera video, and witness interviews, OSI determined that a prosecutor would not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt at trial that the officer committed a crime, and therefore criminal charges could not be pursued in this matter.
On April 7, 2022, at approximately 8 p.m., an officer with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) was transporting four individuals in custody from the 73rd Precinct to Brooklyn Central Booking. He was driving an NYPD van with the turret lights activated, accompanied by another officer riding in the passenger seat. Both a civilian witness and a detained individual riding in the van reported that they had seen a white SUV, driving ahead of the NYPD van, move into the left-turn lane at the intersection of Schenectady Avenue and Eastern Parkway. Then, instead of turning left, the SUV swerved in front of the NYPD van, causing the officer, who was speeding, to maneuver the van into the left-turn lane to avoid a collision. On the far side of the intersection, the left-turn lane becomes the flush median lane. After driving through the green light at the intersection, the van struck Mr. Smith, who was standing in the flush median lane. Mr. Smith landed on the hood of the van and fell to the ground as the officer stopped the vehicle. The officer got out of the van and began to perform chest compressions. Mr. Smith was transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Footage from the officer’s BWC showed what appeared to be a soccer game on the officer’s cell phone. OSI’s investigation determined that the soccer game on the phone was in fact the officer’s screensaver, and he was neither watching a live game nor texting or talking on the phone while driving prior to the collision.
The officer riding in the passenger seat of the van reported that the detained individuals sitting in the back were yelling and attempting to distract the officers. He was focused on reviewing a warrant when the van hit Mr. Smith, and immediately got out and walked around the front of the van to see the other officer performing chest compressions on Mr. Smith.
The autopsy report concluded that Mr. Smith’s injuries were consistent with being struck by a vehicle and landing hard on the ground and did not indicate that Mr. Smith had been dragged by the van. The cause of death was determined to be blunt force injuries, and the manner of death was an accident.
The NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad (CIS) reported to the scene approximately one hour after the incident and, about half an hour later, began sobriety testing, including an alcohol breath test, on the officer, which were negative. The CIS concluded the officer showed no signs of impairment. During the course of the investigation, OSI also retained an independent collision reconstructionist to analyze the crash. The reconstruction analysis concluded the officer was speeding but hit the brakes to stop the van almost immediately after impact, and that the rain and low lighting conditions, in addition to Mr. Smith’s dark clothing, contributed to the officer’s inability to see Mr. Smith. Transporting individuals in custody is defined as an emergency vehicle operation under the Vehicle and Traffic Law, under which speeding and driving in non-vehicular lanes is permissible.
Under New York law, proving criminally negligent homicide requires proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a person failed to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that death would occur; that the failure to perceive the risk was a gross deviation from a reasonable person’s standard of care; and that the person engaged in blameworthy conduct. Even in civil cases involving police officers who have injured people in the course of emergency driving, the courts have required evidence of conscious indifference to the outcome to establish the officer’s liability. In this case, based on the facts and the evidence, OSI cannot conclude that the officer acted with reckless disregard for the safety of others, or conscious indifference to the risks associated with his driving. Taking into consideration relevant statutes and case law, OSI determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove the officer in this case committed criminally negligent homicide, and therefore concluded that criminal charges are not warranted.
In the report, OSI makes recommendations to the NYPD in an effort to prevent future incidents while officers are operating emergency vehicles. The OSI recommends that the NYPD should:
- Exclude the transportation of individuals in custody as an emergency operation unless authorized by a supervisor;
- Require a higher standard of safety and security for the transportation of individuals in custody and appropriately equip officers for the task; and
- Hold officers to the same standards as civilians and breath-test them as quickly as practicable after a serious motor vehicle collision.