Having assumed office when violent crime threatened every aspect of the lives of all who lived in our diverse county, Judge Brown sought to solve any problem that the public faced. Because Queens had long been plagued by stolen car rings and chop shops, Judge Brown prioritized those prosecutions, defying the conventional wisdom that such matters were “victimless crimes,” as he devoted untold investigative resources to the fight, and reduced auto thefts from more than 50,000 per year upon taking office to barely more than 1,000 annually at the time of his death. Sadly, as this is being written, auto theft has again skyrocketed.
Queens was then one of the world’s major hubs for trafficking cocaine and heroin and through the appropriate use of electronic surveillance, enormous quantities of these poisons were seized and countless lives saved by preventing their distribution on our streets.
Judge Brown did not rely solely on enforcement by any means. He also invested heavily in programs to combat the evil of addiction and the office partnered with the courts and service providers to make our Drug Court among the first in the nation and a model for all others.
He employed that model several times thereafter, championing Specialty Courts to provide services for the mentally ill, kids, veterans and those brutally sex trafficked.
No path to redemption was ever foreclosed.
At his direction, the District Attorney’s Office partnered with the NYC Department of Education and established an alternative high school, the Queens Court Academy, within the actual confines of the office.
The teenage students were defendants in pending cases. Many fell into a category that could only be described as “high risk.”
Yet, Judge Brown was willing to assume those risks to provide them a chance to turn their lives around and get an education in place of a criminal record. At the time of his death and perhaps still, no other District Attorney in the state, much less the nation, had endeavored to run a high school from within his or her office. At the time of Judge Brown’s passing, the office maintained 30 alternative to incarceration programs.
Homicides were averaging one a day when he took office. While they were reduced during his tenure to approximately one per week, Judge Brown never lost sight of the fact that every homicide was a tragedy for a family — no number was acceptable.
A single homicide was one too many. Judge Brown met personally with many families of homicide victims. He particularly sought to reduce violent crime by partnering with the NYPD to aggressively investigate the gang-related violence that still plague our streets. By making clear that the taking of a life would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, whether by only accepting plea bargains on his terms, or by ensuring that such cases were tried by the most senior, dedicated and talented members of his staff. Judge Brown was resolute that “Thou Shall Not Kill” was something heard not only in our houses of worship, but became the real “code of the street.”
One of the areas the DA was most proud of was our efforts to combat the scourge of domestic violence. Under his direction Queens pioneered many innovative practices and procedures that have been copied nationwide.
And true to his roots as an appellate judge, he made sure that the legal turf he won at the trial level was defended throughout the appellate process with precision and scholarship.
When it came to legislation, he promoted change in the state’s laws to facilitate the prosecution of sexual predators and domestic abusers. But he also worked to change the state’s criminal record sealing statutes, permitting those with ancient convictions to find redemption and recoup their names, reputations and find new opportunities for employment and full restoration to our society.
Indeed, Judge Brown tasked members of his staff to author, in collaboration with the Innocence Project and the New York State Bar Association, the statutes passed by the Legislature to reform Identification Procedures and to require that Suspect Interrogations be recorded — both meaningful protections against the horrors of a wrongful prosecution or conviction.
In his final months, he was saddened by the reality that so many choose to vilify the role of law enforcement and that of prosecutors in particular.
There were those who, rather than acknowledge the paramount role that law enforcement played in making New York City the safest big city in America, sought to trivialize that accomplishment and discount the effort of those responsible for it. While disappointed, he was not deterred. He never lost sight of what truly mattered and never let those around him lose focus on our primary mission — protecting every person in Queens — whether their physical safety and their property, as well as the rights of those accused.
How will Judge Brown be remembered?
At the time he announced that he would not seek reelection, only months before his death, an editorial proclaimed that “NYC is losing its last true prosecutor.”
That may seem excessive to some, but it remains our fondest hope that for the sake of our city, others will follow his example. Only time will tell.
He leaves behind as his legacy nearly 1,000 men and women who served as his assistants and hundreds of detectives and members of the support staff who were all proud to have worked for him. It is the responsibility of everyone that he trained and inspired to carry forth his mantle and never forget what The Judge would expect of them.
Although gone, the Honorable Richard A. Brown should not be forgotten. For learning from his quiet, elegant commitment to decency and excellence has to help us through these profoundly, difficult times. For our part, we were fortunate to have known him, because we will not soon see his kind pass our way again.
John M. Ryan became Acting District Attorney upon Richard Brown’s death and had previously served as the Office’s Chief Assistant District Attorney since 1997. He worked within the Office during the entire Brown Administration.
Robert J. Masters served as Counsel to the District Attorney at the time of Richard Brown’s death and also served as Executive Assistant District Attorney, among other positions in the DA’s Office.
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