After street safety demonstrators packed last night’s 88th Precinct community council meeting to demand action after the death of 9-year-old Lucian Merryweather on a Fort Greene sidewalk, elected officials spoke to the audience of well over 100 people. Brooklyn District Attorney-elect Ken Thompson, sitting quietly near the back, only spoke after an audience member asked him if he would combat traffic violence more aggressively than his predecessor, Charles Hynes. Although he didn’t reveal many details, Thompson offered a small glimpse into how he views the DA’s role in combatting dangerous driving.
“What I intend to do is take these cases very seriously,” he said. “I intend to do things differently. I can’t tell you right now how that’s going to play out, but there’s going to be a change with me.” Thompson encouraged people concerned about traffic violence to reach out to him before he takes office in January. (Streetsblog reached out to the Thompson campaign twice during the race for DA. The campaign did not respond to our queries.)
“Maybe there needs to be certain prosecutors assigned to these cases,” Thompson said, “so we don’t have every fatality blamed on the victim.”
After the meeting, Streetsblog pressed Thompson for details about his plans: Would he review all NYPD crash investigations? Would he seek to make more use of the state’s reckless driving law? Thompson avoided offering specifics: “We should thoroughly investigate and follow the evidence wherever it leads us. And when I’m Brooklyn DA, I intend to investigate and prosecute motorists that deserve to be investigated and prosecuted,” he said. “I’m going to take an aggressive approach to this issue.”
Thompson’s most substantive responses came after I asked if he will increase the size of the vehicular crimes unit. “That’s something I’m thinking about,” he said. “You have to think long and hard about when there were other prosecutions under the current administration.”
Hynes has filed charges against the driver who killed Merryweather. He has prosecuted a handful of cases in recent years against other drivers involved in fatal crashes that did not involve alcohol or fleeing the scene.
“There’s all types of criminality that could be committed by somebody driving a vehicle that hits and kills someone,” Thompson said, emphasizing that “criminality” does not just include leaving the scene and drunk or impaired driving. “It’s not just fatalities. Beyond fatalities, somebody can be seriously injured, and not killed, but they still need justice.”
Thompson, who lives in Clinton Hill, said he was saddened by Merryweather’s death. “I have a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. I’m here to learn more about this because the DA’s office has to change,” he said. “The DA has to play a role. That’s why I’m here.”
Thompson was followed by Public Advocate-elect Letitia James, who currently represents the area on the City Council and has made street safety a top issue before assuming her new office. “We need to put an end to this,” she said, “so running a red light does not result in death, it results in a ticket.”
James added that she will use her office to keep this issue in the spotlight for the next administration. “As public advocate, my job is to be a pain in the butt to the tall guy, Bill de Blasio,” she said, before referencing the deaths of Merryweather and Clara Heyworth, who was also killed by a driver in the district and was the subject of a botched NYPD investigation. “Although he’s a friend, he’s an ally, we’re close, I’m going to be a pain in the butt,” James said. “I’m going to be a pain in the butt on behalf of Lucian and on behalf of Clara.”
Laurie Cumbo, James’s successor on the City Council, was more cautious, emphasizing the 88th Precinct’s role as a traffic safety partner. “We’re often so drawn together in moments of tragedy,” she said, adding that many people who regularly attend 88th Precinct community council meetings were feeling “territorial infringement” last night with the arrival of traffic safety marchers. “If this is something that we care about, we can’t only come to the 88th Precinct council meeting in times of tragedy,” Cumbo told the protestors.
Cumbo and James are organizing a traffic safety town hall with civic associations and city agencies tentatively scheduled for January 9 at at Pratt Institute’s Higgins Hall. Streetsblog will have a full report on last night’s march and precinct community council meeting later today.