Person of the Year: Queens County District Attorney Richard A. Brown

THE COURIER/Photos by Alina Suriel, with archived photos courtesy of Queens District Attorney’s office.

District Attorney Richard Brown has been here for it all, and he has no plans on going anywhere else.

Brown was sworn in Monday for his seventh consecutive full term as the district attorney of Queens County, continuing a 2010 record he set of being the county’s longest tenured chief prosecutor. He has overseen a radical change in the landscape of New York City, including an overall crime drop of 80 percent over the last 22 years.

“I think the proudest moment that I’ve had in all of the 25 years I’ve been here is that we’ve been able to make a difference, a significant difference,” Brown said.

Brown now believes Queens to be “the safest county in the safest big city in America,” with the last year closing on some of the lowest crime statistics in recent memory. He is credited with being a major part of this reversal by spearheading his department’s use of cutting-edge programs and initiatives to effectively tackle crime in all its iterations, from violent offences such as murder and robbery to issues affecting specific communities such as the borough’s sizable immigrant community.

Brown said that it takes an enormous amount of vigilance to ensure the continuing drop of crime and he puts in long hours at work to feel aware of Queens at all times. He also credits the hard work of his staff of more than 300 assistant district attorneys, whom he says are “some of the best and brightest and most capable prosecutors.”

“The basic challenge is maintaining the level of success that we’ve had through the years,” Brown said. “The fact is that we’ve got to be certain at all times that we get things right, that we don’t make mistakes … and the way you don’t make mistakes is to be on top of everything that goes on.”

Although his career as a district attorney is obviously notable for its length and accomplishments, Brown walked a distinctive path of outstanding achievement far before taking office in Queens, having worked in public service in various positions for 55 years.

Brown knew early on that he wanted to work in the field of law, having dreamed of the career since his days as a high school student. He was admitted to the bar association in October 1956 after graduating from the New York University School of Law that same year.

He became a member of the judiciary in 1973, and was appointed supervising judge of the Brooklyn Criminal Court less than two years later. In 1976, he became a justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York and later served as a Supreme Court justice in Queens before returning to Albany to work as chief legal counsel to then-Governor Hugh Carey. He continued to serve another stretch as New York Supreme Court, before becoming an Associate Justice of the Appellate Division, where he was twice re-designated.

The history of Brown’s extensive accomplishments is rare for a city district attorney, according to Queens Supreme Court Justice Joseph Zayas, who performed the District Attorney’s latest swearing-in ceremony. Zayas himself argued before Brown as a young lawyer during the DA’s time as an appellate judge.

“It’s a privilege to be swearing in someone who has been sitting for 25 years,” Zayas said.

As for his accomplishments in the borough of Queens, DA Brown said that he is especially proud of his efforts to obtain convictions in domestic abuse cases. Queens has the highest conviction rate of domestic violence abuse cases in the city, with more domestic violence guilty pleas than the other counties combined, according to Brown.

The district attorney began focusing on the issue of domestic violence during the tenure of former Borough President Claire Shulman, who noted that together, they set a precedence of how to deal with these cases in the county, including details such as providing each victim with a cellphone for increased safety.

Shulman said that although each case was somewhat different from the last, Brown put all of his effort into handling every one.

“He is extremely intelligent, a legal expert, has incredible integrity and has the utmost gracious manner,” Shulman said, adding, “He is one of my favorite people in government.”

Recently, Brown furthered his advocacy against domestic violence by hailing an early 2015 decision that will allow court documents to be signed electronically by domestic violence victims, eliminating the need for travel after their abusers are released from jail. He said the technology was a significant victory for victims that would revolutionize the way domestic violence cases are prosecuted and enable his office to convict more “batterers.”

Domestic violence is not the only initiative in which Brown seeks to make radical change. In January 2015, he continued his office’s progressive approach by establishing an immigrant affairs office to assist immigrant communities in navigating the justice system and handle crime targeting the most vulnerable members of this population. He has said that this new bureau is necessary to consolidate outreach as immigration policy evolves with new generations.

Queens County Clerk and former Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer remarked that Brown’s tireless work makes him an inspiring leader and that she believes he will continue the good work in the next four years.

“It’s been a rewarding experience working with him, and I look forward to many more years with him in the future,” Pheffer said.

Judge Peter Vallone — a newly elected Queens judge who formerly served on the City Council — said it has been an honor to have worked as chair of the Public Safety Committee with DA Brown for 12 years to make sure justice was done in Queens.

“As a new judge assigned to sit in Queens Criminal Court, I look forward to working with his assistant district attorneys, who have always been well trained and extremely competent,” Judge Vallone said.

As for his own views on his future, DA Brown knows for certain that he loves his job and has no intention of leaving before his time is up. He is acutely aware of the support that he receives from the voters and takes this as a signal that he is making a difference in the borough that he loves so well. His only wish is to outdo a former colleague who served as a prosecutor into his nineties.

“As long as I can of the kind of job that we do here, I intend to stay here,” Brown said. “I have no illusions other than the fact that I’d like to outlast [former Manhattan District Attorney] Bob Morgenthau.”