A Look Back at Ken Thompson’s 2015 Interview With TransAlt

Photo: Transportation Alternatives/Reclaim
Photo: Transportation Alternatives/Reclaim

Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson died from cancer on Sunday just a few days after publicly announcing his illness. Thompson, who took office in 2014, was considered a leader among NYC district attorneys in taking reckless driving seriously. In 2015 Transportation Alternatives spoke with Thompson about street safety and traffic justice. Streetsblog reposted this interview from TA’s Reclaim magazine.

As Brooklyn District Attorney, Ken Thompson is determined to make New York City’s streets safe and just. Reclaim sat down to discuss how he thinks that change is going to happen, what inspired him to get involved and where the fight for livable streets is going.

What put this issue on your radar?

I’ll tell you what put it on my radar. There was an incident in November of 2013 in my neighborhood. It involved a young child named Lucian Merryweather. He was only nine. It was November. It was a Saturday. It was a clear day. It was a beautiful day. He was walking down the street with his mother and his five-year-old brother. They were on the sidewalk near DeKalb Avenue. A man named Anthony Byrd ran him over and killed him.

I have a daughter who is ten and a son who is eight. I felt for the parents of Lucian Merryweather. And so I believe that we can do better as a borough and a city in making our streets safer.

I met with Lucian Merryweather’s parents after I took office. It might have been January of 2014. It was shortly after I took office. No matter what I said to them, they were inconsolable. I will never forget that meeting — just like when I met with the father of Mohammed Uddin, the 14-year-old brilliant young boy from Brooklyn Tech, who was killed in November of 2014.

I believe there’s a greater role for district attorneys to play in keeping our streets safe. I think that, in the past, some have argued that when these incidents happen, they’re an accident. Quite often, the victim is blamed for the incident without a real full-blown investigation. I think we need to change that. That is what motivated me as a father, as a concerned citizen and as the D.A. That is what prompted me to act.

And then I had Council Member Brad Lander, who I have great respect for, reach out to me. He brought Mohammed Uddin’s father to see me. Mr. Uddin cried through that whole meeting. Brad and I had some follow up conversations about what we could do. The takeaway was that we should bring folks together — safety advocates, members of the NYPD, members of my office and others — to see if we could do better in Brooklyn. That’s what we’re trying to do with the Driver Accountability Taskforce we created.

Could you tell us a bit more about the Taskforce?

We had a preliminary meeting at the end of last year — a small meeting with Council Member Lander and just a few folks. Families for Safe Streets and Transportation Alternatives were there. At that meeting, I suggested we have a sort of summit; that we should have more people around the table. I said let’s plan it, let’s do it, let’s bring the stakeholders together. We had our first meeting about a month ago. It was well attended. We had people from probation. Judge Calabrese from Red Hook was there. We had so many folks at the table and some of my top executives were there — Eric Gonzalez, my second in command. The goal is to see how we can come together to prevent these tragedies from happening, and to figure out how we, and the court system, can prosecute these cases and work on restorative justice models. In the Lucian Merryweather case, no matter what sentence the defendant got, that family will never be the same. I do think that we can do better as prosecutors in terms of helping families of victims heal. A sentence is not solely the answer. Quite often they want to know why. They want people to know what the defendant’s actions meant; how they impacted a family. We’re having those discussions.

So you want to bring a restorative justice model into this process?

Yes. We talked about that. We’re still talking about that. I think that if we could do that we would help victims, their families, and also educate the people of Brooklyn about how serious these matters are. Not that the people of Brooklyn don’t think these issues are serious, but I think we could do more than just call these incidents an accident. That’s why the NYPD investigation unit is no longer called the Accident Investigation Squad. There’s more to it. As the D.A., I intend to do my part. With Vision Zero now a law, we’re going to have more cases that we probably would not have had before. I’m looking forward to it. I think people are meeting in good faith to see how we can make the streets better in Brooklyn and hopefully throughout the city.

Do you want your work here to serve as a model for the other boroughs?

I hope that our work in Brooklyn is a model for the country. This is not a unique New York City problem. In Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, I think there are probably efforts afoot or efforts that should be initiated to make those streets safe, too. We here in Brooklyn can lead the country in many ways. I’m not being arrogant. Brooklyn, as a standalone, would be America’s fourth largest city. We have to look nationally, not just citywide.

What can your partners at the DMV and the NYPD do to help push this agenda forward?

We have to look at how we can work more collaboratively with respect to the investigation of these matters. When something like this happens, if somebody survives, that person has evidence, there are witnesses on the scene, there’s often video surveillance, there are experts. I think we all have to work closely to get to the truth. We can do that more efficiently. With respect to the loss of the privilege of driving, I think that’s important. Maybe we should figure out how we can make it clear that reckless driving will not be tolerated. There’s only so much we can do as prosecutors with respect to this area.

We just convicted a guy named Julio Acevedo a few weeks ago for criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter in the second degree for killing a beautiful couple and their baby. That was not an easy case to win, and we did. I put some of my best lawyers on that case: Gail Dampf, the Chief of Vehicular Crimes, and Tim Gough, the Chief of the Grey Zone — and they delivered justice for that family and for Brooklyn.

What makes these cases so hard to win?

You have to often prove that the defendant was morally blameworthy. It’s not just that the person was engaging in bad driving, but that there was some particularly egregious conduct. When we call these cases accidents — and we have for many years — as soon as we put that term out there, I think that people assume that the person was not at fault because we all have accidents. We drop things, things go wrong. We have to be careful in how we describe these tragedies. When you say, “It’s an accident,” people think, well, it could have been me. And often the evidence isn’t clear cut. When the officers arrive on the scene you have only the remnants of what happened. You don’t know exactly what happened. It’s just not easy to win these cases. Julio Acevedo, we alleged, was speeding and killed that young couple, but it was not an easy case to win.

Does setting the threshold at “morally blameworthy” make justice harder to find for people who weren’t in that sort of situation but still suffered from a driver’s negligence and horrible decision-making? What about the gray area?

That’s why these cases are so hard to handle, and why I’m willing to be part of a taskforce to educate the public. I don’t think there’s one answer to preventing these cases or prosecuting them, but I think we have to take a different approach. I think it’s critical that we have the safety advocates and the legislators like Council Member Lander, that we have the NYPD and prosecutors at the table, along with others. It’s not about assigning blame. It’s about figuring out how we can educate the people of Brooklyn more, and how we can come together. If we can’t prevent these tragedies — and I think we can prevent a great number — if we can’t prevent these, then I want to make sure when they do occur, there’s a prosecutor’s office that will take them seriously.

Can you put this in the context of the MTA bus drivers recently arrested for failure to yield?

I met with Transit a few weeks ago. They made a strong argument about the blind spot that bus drivers have. They were very clear that this is something that bus drivers are told in the academy — about how to navigate around this blind spot. And they made a good point about how they’re required to follow routes. They don’t have a choice about this left turn or that busy street; about these challenges or those dangers. They have to do it. It was instructive to hear their views and their perspective. I think we, as prosecutors, need to know that. We need to know how we all can make our streets safer. I don’t want one group pitted against the other.

When I was running for D.A. it struck me that in many of the vehicular fatalities, the victim was blamed. I wasn’t in office yet, but now I can work with T.A., with Families for Safe Streets and with others to get more information; to see how we in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office can do better. This is the third largest district attorney’s office in the country. As of September, we’ll have 550 prosecutors. I want to train my prosecutors so everyone here will be fair to the people of Brooklyn when these incidents happen and not just say, “It was an accident.”

What laws would you like to see changed?

This was part of the discussion at the Taskforce meeting. Maybe driving with a suspended license, in some instances, when it’s a misdemeanor, can be bumped up to a Class D felony. When we met there were a number of legislative ideas that folks were suggesting we pursue. That’s going to take more than just the Brooklyn District Attorney. It’s going to take our partners up in Albany. The City Council gave us Vision Zero, but Albany controls the DMV and everything else, so we need to bring other elected officials to the table. The good thing is that the Taskforce is just beginning. We have room for people to join us. We’re not trying to come up with a solution tomorrow. We’re trying to come up with long-term solutions that will make Brooklyn safer and the city safer and the country safer.

When would you like to see the Taskforce start developing solutions?

As soon as possible. Don’t get the impression that this is an academic exercise where we’re sitting around saying, “Gee, it would be nice if we could have safer streets.” We can have safer streets. We have to work harder to make our streets safer. So, I can’t give you a timeframe. I can’t say that in two months, we’ll have X. I expect us all to work together in good faith over the next couple of months, and possibly years, to do what we can to implement important measures to prevent these fatalities from happening and to investigate and prosecute those cases that deserve to be investigated and prosecuted. That being said, I think that we are heading in the right direction. We had a productive meeting a month ago. We all left with the determination to meet again. Sometimes you have a meeting and it doesn’t go too well. This was not that meeting. I think that we need to make sure we don’t lose momentum. I’m committed to making sure that if I can’t make a meeting, one of my top executives is there to represent me and this office.

Let me also make it clear, I’m not trying to do anything other than make the streets of Brooklyn safer. This all came out of when Council Member Lander brought that young boy’s father to see me. It’s that simple. I was already concerned and already interested, but that was the motivating factor: to do something other than meet with another set of devastated, grieving parents. I can’t speak for anyone else but me: this is a genuine commitment to work with the advocates, the NYPD, other members of the court system, transit workers and other stakeholders to see how we all can do better in Brooklyn.

Speaking to our readers, what would you like to see the advocates do?

I think the advocates are doing a very good job. When I was running for D.A., there was a fatality in Williamsburg — an artist named Mathieu Lefevre — he was hit by a truck — I went to Transportation Alternatives to get information about it online. I was able to understand what happened and to hear what his mother was saying. That was important. I don’t know what the advocates can do that they’re not doing now. I think being proactive and approaching us and being able and willing to work with all the key stakeholders is critical.

In order for this to work, everyone has to play their role. You can’t have one partner who’s really committed and another just going through the motions. You want people to get the issue, to know how important it is, and that something can be done about it. The advocates are doing that. They’re doing their part. That’s a fact. And it’s not my role to suggest what the advocates should do. I have to do my job, to play my part as the Brooklyn D.A., to make sure my prosecutors are doing what they can do. My concern is my office doing our part.