DA Gonzalez launches new street safety unit to help investigate crashes

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez speaks at Grand Army Plaza on June 19, 2020.
Photo by Paul Frangipane

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez launched a new bureau dedicated to investigating car crashes and advocating for safer streets Thursday, with a focus on protecting bicyclists and pedestrians.

The new Street Safety Bureau will send attorneys to the scene of serious traffic incidences and work with lawmakers to craft legislation to make the city’s roads safer, according to Gonzalez’s office.

“We must do all we possibly can to battle traffic violence in Brooklyn to decrease the number of cyclists and pedestrians who are killed and maimed by drivers,” Brooklyn’s top prosecutor said in a statement on July 16.

The unit will dispatch lawyers to the scene of crashes as soon as the Police Department activates its Collision Investigation Squad to help gather evidence, talk to witnesses, and make contact with victims and their families, according to the DA’s office.

This will help prosecutors determine whether to bring charges and ensures that the authorities consider and preserve all evidence, according to the DA, who said that crashes are often preventable and that this initiative is especially important as traffic is expected to become heavier as the city reopens from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need to invest resources and shift our focus regarding these cases – they are often not accidents but preventable tragedies, caused by dangerous, reckless and unlawful driving,” Gonzalez said. “Now more than ever, as vehicular traffic in the city is expected to increase in light of the pandemic, protecting all who use our streets is paramount.”

Assistant District Attorney Craig Esswein will head up the new unit, while his fellow ADA Ronald Snyder — an avid cyclist for the past 15 years — will serve as deputy chief and liaison with the bicycle community and other partners.

The office will also send social workers from the DA’s Victims Services Bureau to hospitals after incidents — something they already do for victims of sexual assault or domestic violence.

The assistance for victims and their families will be especially helpful, said the mother of Sammy Cohen Eckstein, a 12-year-old boy who died after a van driver hit him in Park Slope in 2013.

“As victims of traffic violence, we are particularly thankful for the support crash victims will receive, as well as the new efforts to prevent others from suffering as we have,” said Amy Cohen, who is also a co-founder of the advocacy group Families for Safe Streets.

In recent years, Gonzalez has been faced with several devastating crashes in his jurisdiction, such as in 2018, when a driver hit and killed four-year-old Luz Gonzalez on a Bushwick sidewalk and then fled the scene.

Gonzalez’s office on June 24 announced that the motorist in that case, Jeanette Maria, will only face minor charges of “failure to exercise due care,” Streetsblog reported.

The DA’s office conducted its own lengthy investigation of that case with evidence examined by cops but found that Maria could not have known that she ran over the girl, according to the report.

Another high-profile case for the DA was that of Dorothy Bruns, whom Gonzalez charged with fatally running over two Park Slope toddlers in 2018.

Bruns faced up to 15 years if convicted of reckless manslaughter, and spent several months on Rikers Island before making bail, but she killed herself in her Staten Island home in November 2018.