EMT arrested for hit-and-run death of teacher Matthew Jensen has history of driving dangerously

mcguiness intersection of bayard where matthew jensen was killed by driver
The NYPD arrested Tariq Witherspoon, a longtime FDNY EMT, for the hit-and-run killing of Matthew Jensen.
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The driver who allegedly killed Matthew Jensen in a hit-and-run in Greenpoint last year is a Fire Department Emergency Medical Technician with a history of driving personal and city-owned vehicles recklessly.

Cops arrested 30-year-old Tariq Witherspoon on Tuesday morning, nearly a year after he hit Jensen, a P.S. 110 teacher, at the intersection of Bayard Street and the infamously dangerous McGuinness Boulevard after midnight on May 18 of last year. Witherspoon was indicted with criminally negligent homicide, leaving the scene of an accident without reporting, second-degree reckless endangerment, reckless driving, and excessive speed, and has reportedly been released on bail until his court date in April.

Court records show five civil complaints lodged against Witherspoon for dangerous driving since 2015. One, from 2016, alleges that Witherspoon had lent his 2011 Porsche to an “inexperienced and unlicensed driver,” who crashed the luxury vehicle, injuring a passenger in the other car. A year earlier, he was subject to a lawsuit after causing a crash while driving a rental car.

make mcguinness safe rally after hit and run
Jensen’s death led to the creation of the “Make McGuinness Safe Coalition,” a group of neighbors rallying for a redesign of the road. File photo by Dean Moses

In 2017, a driver sued the city, the FDNY, the Comptroller’s office, and Witherspoon after he allegedly rear-ended her in an ambulance as she sat at a stoplight at the intersection of Lexington and Tompkins avenues. The plaintiff said she was injured severely enough to be forced to stop working as she had before the crash. 

In the police report filed after the accident, Witherspoon said that he had been driving at a low speed — about 5mph — and realized he was too close to the plaintiff’s car as he tried to slow to a stop at the red light, according to an affidavit filed in the case. Later, though, Witherspoon said he was bringing a patient to Woodhull Hospital — without his lights and sirens on — when the car in front of him started moving after the light turned green, then stopped short, leaving him without time to react and causing him to hit the back of the car.

Just a few months later, Witherspoon allegedly hit a cyclist while driving a city-owned vehicle on Flushing Avenue, seriously injuring the cyclist. According to court documents, that vehicle Witherspoon was driving at the time did not have a license plate beginning with “AM,” as most New York City ambulances do, but the complaint notes that the lights and sirens were not activated at the time of the crash. 

“We expect that New Yorkers who serve our city, especially behind the wheel, are doing so safely, and that there are ramifications if they are not safe on our streets,” said Corey Epstein, a spokesperson for the street safety organization Transportation Alternatives. “This should not happen again, and we hope that all city agencies have better tools in place to remove reckless drivers from city-owned vehicles and our roads.”

Witherspoon has been suspended from his position without pay, according to the FDNY, but the department did not say whether he had been disciplined after the accidents involving a city-owned vehicle.

“Driving is dangerous and the consequences of reckless behavior cannot be undone,” said Assemblywoman Emily Gallagher in a statement released after Witherspoon’s arrest. “There have been at least four civil complaints against the suspect related to serious injuries caused by negligent driving prior to the killing of Matthew Jensen on May 18, 2021, yet he still kept his license.”

According to the Daily News, Witherspoon was traveling around 50 mph — double the legal speed limit — at the time of the crash, and the Rolls-Royce he was driving was “borrowed.”

In 2014, the city dropped the speed limit on McGuinness Boulevard to 25mph, months before the limit dropped citywide, in response to large-scale speeding on the wide roadway. According to the American Automobile Association, a car hitting a pedestrian at 50mph has a 75 percent chance of killing that pedestrian, and is almost certain to cause severe injury, compared to a roughly 25 percent chance of severe injury and a 10 percent chance of death at 25mph.