District Attorney George Gascón has announced that he will hire an attorney devoted to handling vehicular manslaughter cases, in what could be a major step toward bringing accountability to drivers who kill.
“We’ve lost children, grandparents, people in the prime of their life,” Gascón said yesterday in his State of Public Safety Address, where he announced the initiative under the rubric of Vision Zero. The SF Examiner reports:
The full-time position, requested in the next budget, is necessary to ensure his office can respond “swiftly and appropriately” to such cases, Gascón said.
The district attorney reminded hundreds of public-safety leaders and advocates at the Hall of Justice auditorium that 21 pedestrians were struck and killed by motorists in The City last year, the highest number since 2007. Two months into this year, eight people have lost their lives on San Francisco roadways, which he called “unprecedented” and an incentive to implement the Vision Zero policy to eliminate pedestrian fatalities.
“I am passionate about this effort because when a case gets to my desk, it is already too late; someone has lost their life,” Gascón said. “These tragedies are completely avoidable, and a modern city like San Francisco can and should eliminate this threat.”
Modern technology has meant that advancements like computers in vehicles, security cameras and smartphones become part of vehicular manslaughter investigations. Gascón’s strategy is to have a prosecutor who understands all the forensic evidence available in the 21st century.
“The reason police departments have been doing these is because it’s a complicated process,” he told The San Francisco Examiner. “We in prosecution have a more generalist approach to what is becoming a very specialized area of law.”
If the Board of Supervisors approves the position, the hiring would happen after the start of the fiscal year.
Gascón also reiterated the importance of the engineering of safer streets, enforcement and education to combat pedestrian fatalities.
“This is exactly the type of leadership that’s needed,” said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Schneider. “The DA recognizes that pedestrian safety is a preventable problem, and he’s proposing a solution that will ultimately get us to zero traffic fatalities.”
Gascón’s announcement is a marked turnaround from the days when he dismissed the lack of prosecutions of deadly drivers by erroneously blaming pedestrians in most cases. Since then, his message has evolved, and he appears to be following the lead of the SFPD by pledging to pursue Vision Zero, with action to back up the rhetoric.
“Whether we’re behind the wheel, on our bikes, or crossing the street — and by the way, I include myself in all three of those populations because I do all three,” said Gascón, “when we get distracted and let our guard down, people get hurt.”
“It is exciting that District Attorney Gascón supports our Vision Zero strategy,” said Supervisor Jane Kim, who introduced the Vision Zero board resolution, which is on a supervisors committee agenda for next Thursday.
Kim said Gascón’s office has already “committed to sending a DA out to every traffic collision in the city if that would help ensure a thorough investigation and collision report, which I was thrilled about.”
“His commitment to dedicated staffing for prosecuting vehicular manslaughter will be a critical piece of Vision Zero,” she said. “SFPD can enforce and arrest, but if people are not being prosecuted for breaking the law, we won’t see a change in behavior.”
As Schneider noted, the only key city official who hasn’t stepped up with a serious show of leadership on Vision Zero is Mayor Ed Lee. “Our eyes are on the mayor to see how he will respond to the growing interest in pedestrian safety across numerous city departments,” she said, “and we hope that he’ll match those plans with the money needed to implement them.”