Brooklyn DA Creates ‘Street Safety Bureau’ to Bolster Crash Investigation, Draft New Laws

This is a split second before Jose Alzorriz (right) was killed just waiting for a light in 2019. His killer might never have been charged without video.
This is a split second before Jose Alzorriz (right) was killed just waiting for a light in 2019. His killer might never have been charged without video.

The Brooklyn District Attorney will create a new Street Safety Bureau to beef up the NYPD’s poor investigation and follow-through on traffic violence cases — and work with lawmakers to create new bills to combat vehicular violence, the office will announce this morning.

The goal is to protect cyclists and pedestrians after a particularly deadly year on the streets of Brooklyn, and ahead of a return to more cars on the road alongside more people walking and biking — creating the likelihood for more deadly clashes.

Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez
Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez

“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,” said District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. “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. 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.”

With the creation of the new unit, a prosecutor from the DA’s office will now rush to every fatal scene, 24-7-365. The prosecutor will assist the NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad — a notoriously understaffed 26-person unit that responds to just 5 percent of the 2,000-3,000 fatal and near-fatal crashes every year — in identifying evidence, speaking to witnesses while their memories are fresh, documenting relevant information, and drafting warrants to collect evidence, according to the DA’s office.

The immediate response to a scene will help prosecutors determine early on whether they have a case if any criminality is suspected, according to Gonzalez. Previously, Brooklyn prosecutors would not go to every scene and would rely heavily on the work of the NYPD at the scene to decide whether to open a criminal investigation. NYPD crash investigations often rely heavily on the testimony of the driver.

The unit will start by sending prosecutors just to the scenes of fatal crashes, but a spokesman said it hopes to expand to respond to crashes where the victim is in critical condition.

Last year, amid one of the deadliest since the start of Vision Zero in 2014, 18 cyclists killed out of the 29 cyclists who died citywide were in Brooklyn. And the plurality of dead pedestrians — 34 — was also in Brooklyn. Among the 52 fatalities in Brooklyn, 33 of the drivers remain uncharged — a poor stat that the addition of the new bureau will hopefully change.

“Traffic violence is an epidemic which impacts thousands of New Yorkers every year, so we are pleased to see that Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez’s new Bureau will refocus efforts to not only prevent reckless driving, but to also provide a new model of support for crash victims and their loved ones,” said Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives.

The new unit will also send, when appropriate, a social worker from the District Attorney’s Victim Services Bureau to the hospital to provide support for victims, like Gonzalez’s office does now for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence — additional support that will go a long way for mourning and in-shock loved ones.

“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, co-founder of Families for Safe Streets, whose 12-year-old son Sammy Cohen Eckstein was killed by a driver in 2013. No charges were ever filed against the driver by former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes or his successor, Ken Thompson.

The new Street Safety Bureau will also work with state and city legislators to strengthen bills that help combat vehicular violence, and will host regular meetings with street safety advocates, according to the DA’s office.