The Post-Standard: Bicyclist hit by police SUV plans to sue
By Robert A. Baker / The Post-Standard
December 20, 2009, 6:00AM
The Post-Standard filed a Freedom of Information request Aug. 12 with Syracuse police seeking the accident report on the Aug. 4 crash involving Sgt. Joel Cordone. In late October, the request was denied by the Syracuse Corporation Counsel’s office. The reason for the denial was that the report was in “draft form.”
After the paper pointed out that there was no provision in the Freedom of Information Law to allow police agencies to deny releasing documents that are in draft form, the city made the documents available on Nov. 6.
The city also redacted the names of witnesses, something Robert Freeman, the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, says should not take place.A bicyclist who was injured by a Syracuse police SUV in August has notified the city he plans to sue.
The crash would not have happened had Sgt. Joel Cordone been driving safely, said Robert Bennett, lawyer for bicyclist Michael Connelly.
Both Connelly and Cordone went through stop signs without stopping. Cordone was chasing two motorcyclists without emergency lights or siren on.
“Vehicle 1 operator (Cordone) disregarded a traffic control device and was inattentive/distracted and Vehicle 2 (Connelly) operator disregarded a traffic control device and was impaired by alcohol,” a police report on the crash stated.
Earlier this year, Capt. Shannon Trice, head of the Syracuse police traffic division, recommended disciplinary action against Cordone.
“He took a risk in trying to apprehend the two motorcyclists and, unfortunately, it was the wrong decision,” Trice said in August.
First Deputy Chief Michael Heenan said the department would not discuss the crash since it involved an internal investigation of a police officer.
A state law — Civil Rights Law 50-a — keeps private the personnel records, and internal investigations, of police officers, firefighters and corrections officers.
Bennett filed a notice of claim against the city for Connelly on Oct. 5.
A police report provided the following details:
Connelly, 47, of Pearl Street, was injured about 11:50 p.m. Aug. 4 at the intersection of North State and Danforth streets by a marked Syracuse police 2005 Ford Explorer driven by Cordone.
Cordone was pursuing two motorcyclists, but the emergency lights of the police vehicle, those flashing lights on the roof and in the grill of police cars, were not in operation.
A state law — Civil Rights Law 50-a — keeps private the personnel records of police officers, firefighters and corrections officers.
Records that are used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion are confidential and viewable only through a court order, according to the law. That includes cases of misconduct.
The discipline of a judge is public record, as are sanctions against a doctor or a teacher, said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government. Most municipal employees have no right to keep any disciplinary action against them from the public eye, he said.
Civil Rights Law 50-a has been on the books since 1976. The point behind it is to avoid a situation in which a police officer is called to testify in court and might be embarrassed by a lawyer bringing up reprimands in his personnel records, Freeman said.
The law blocks citizens from finding out the names of reprimanded officers, how many times an officer has been reprimanded, the rules or laws broken and the number of reprimands an officer may have received.
Connelly was traveling west on Danforth Street and Cordone was heading north on North State Street.
The front tire of Connelly’s blue GT All Terra Outpost 15-speed bicycle hit the front fender of the passenger-side bumper of the 5,488-pound police vehicle. The bicycle and Connelly traveled along the passenger side of the SUV before Connelly eventually fell to the ground and the bike flew off in a northeasterly direction. It came to rest 55 feet away.
A mirror housing from Cordone’s vehicle was found on North State Street more than 180 feet away from the impact area.
Cordone’s vehicle sustained $4,947.69 worth of damage, according to an estimate by Roberts Appraisal Service. Cordone was uninjured.
Eleven minutes after the collision, Connelly was in an ambulance about to be taken to Upstate University Hospital.
His injuries included a fractured jaw, a broken collar bone and broken teeth, the notice of claim states.
“I attempted to speak to Connelly, but he would only respond by moving his head or moaning,” Officer Todd Cramer wrote in his report. “When asked if he had been drinking he nodded his head in an up and down motion indicating affirmative. When I asked where he was drinking, he would only moan.
“I then asked Connelly if he would submit to an Alco-Sensor test and he again nodded his head up and down indicating an affirmative response.”
“I held the sensor tube to his mouth and told him to blow into the straw. He was only able to give several small puffs of air into the straw due to his injuries.”
Connelly’s blood-alcohol content was 0.04 percent, below the legal limit of 0.08 percent used to determine driving while intoxicated.
Testing an injured Connelly “certainly seems insensitive,” Bennett said in an interview. Connelly was already in the ambulance and minutes from the hospital, where blood would have been drawn for testing anyhow, he said.
Connelly does not know if he gave permission to an officer in the back of the ambulance, Bennett said.
“He remembers getting on his bike at home and the next thing he remembers is waking up in the hospital room,” Bennett said.
Police later went to the hospital to get consent to draw blood. They were told Connelly had multiple fractures and was given pain medication prior to their arrival. The medication, police wrote in the report, “was causing him to be incoherent.”
Connelly later signed a release, allowing police to obtain his medical reports. A report of a blood test taken at 12:30 a.m. Aug. 5 indicated his blood-alcohol content was 0.09, police reported.
Heenan said that he doesn’t believe that being intoxicated on a bicycle is against the law, but the breath test of Connelly is necessary in finding a cause to the crash. Heenan said Connelly’s intoxication was a contributing factor.
Bennett said that it’s his opinion that state vehicle and traffic law does not address driving while intoxicated while riding a bicycle.
He said the amount sought in a future lawsuit will depend on several things, including whether the injuries Connelly suffered are permanent, when he can go back to work and what kind of work he can do. Before the crash, Connelly was employed with Traditions catering, Bennett said.
The injuries Connelly suffered include a broken left leg, broken left wrist, broken left clavicle, broken jaw and broken teeth, the notice of claim states.