October 14, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
In the afternoon rush hour on June 4, Traffic Enforcement Agents Christina Drayton and Raheem Harris were coming back from a routine shift in Co-op City. They’d been keeping intersections and crosswalks clear, as part of the Vision Zero program, and were on their way to pick up other agents and bring them back to the office. They were waiting at a red light in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx, when they spotted what Harris calls “a little tussle.”
A gold Mercedes SUV was headed south on Westchester Avenue, under the elevated 6 train tracks. “People were running behind it,” Drayton remembers. “There was even somebody trying to get the door open.” One man was screaming, “go get him, go get him,” Harris recalls.
“We knew he hit something, but we didn’t know what,” says Drayton. Harris’s first thought was that the vehicle was stolen. “We just drove the car and took our risks,” says Drayton.
Two blocks down, Harris, who was driving the van, passed the SUV and cut it off, boxing it in. He jumped out and asked the driver to step out of his vehicle and put his hands on the hood, and took the keys out of the ignition. The three or four people chasing him caught up, one telling Harris the man had killed two children. The two agents put the suspect in the van—people were “screaming very aggressively,” says Drayton—and flagged down a passing police car.
Police arrested the driver, Kwasi Oduro, 73. He had apparently been trying to back into a parking space in front of the Kennedy’s Chicken and Sandwiches restaurant on Westchester Avenue, when the car shot backwards, crashing through the window and crushing 7-year-old Ethan Villavicencio against a wall. The boy had been eating ice cream with his father and younger sister. He was killed, and they were both injured.
Oduro is now facing felony charges of leaving the scene of an incident without reporting it, plus reckless driving and failure to exercise due care, both misdemeanors.
“Their bravery and quick thinking allowed the community to bring the perpetrator to justice,” says Tammy Meadows, a vice-president of Local 1182 of the Communications Workers of America, which represents traffic and sanitation enforcement agents. “Their actions that day exemplify the value traffic agents bring to our city every day of the year.”
The incident was unusual for Drayton, a 32-year-old Level I traffic enforcement agent with seven years on the job. She “mostly just gives out summonses,” she says. The mother of a 12-year-old son, she lives in Harlem and spends most of her time off with her family.
It was the second major incident in his career for Harris, also 32, a Level II TEA who lives in the Bronx. He’d previously chased and caught a robber who’d taken a teenage boy’s gold chain, for which he received a Police Department award for meritorious service. But he wasn’t looking for excitement when he came on the job in early 2009. The father of a 7-year-old son, he says he lives a quiet life, and becoming a TEA meant steady, stable work in the depths of the recession.
Still, he notes that the Bronx is the borough with the highest rate of assaults on TEAs. Most drivers understand that a traffic agent has to do their job, he says, but “people are not happy to be stopped.” And once they’ve been given a summons, “they’re like, ‘what the hey, now I can say what I feel.’”
“I generally give people the impression I’m not the kind of guy you can do that stuff with,” he adds.
He believes the Police Department should place more emphasis on training traffic agents how to handle verbal and physical attacks. “You have to understand your environment,” he says. That means knowing the neighborhood and what kind of people are in it, especially if it’s a high-crime area or one with a gang problem. “You can avoid a situation by not putting yourself in a situation.”
Traffic agents are “the eyes and ears of the department. For the public, we’re the first ones they see, because we’re out there every day. We’re the ones on the front line,” says Tammy Meadows.
“No traffic agent ever runs away from someone who’s in distress,” she adds. “Even though they don’t get the recognition, they go above and beyond to help civilians.”