A Career Fighting Crime With Compassion
and I arrived at the Queens Boulevard Courthouse for our lunch date with
the Queens DA, Judge Brown — as he is called by just about everyone
who knows him — and were shown to his office by a sergeant from his
NYPD team. It had been about a year since I last visited, but the
Judge’s inner office looked much the same. A photo collection adorned
the walls that led to the inner office — a collection of pictures of
Brown and dignitaries — that rivals any in the borough. And inside his
office, pictures of his grandchildren, two girls — his pride and joy
— who he would be taking to breakfast on Friday morning.
are the typical lawyer- type books and stuff as well as a collection
marking his years as one of the City’s leading jurists and crime
fighters: a collection of fire and emergency hats from a variety of
locals; a framed platinum record given to him for his work stopping
counterfeit music sales; a NY Post front page celebrating his
70th birthday; and a comic book called Mr. District Attorney.
& Michael Schenkler
who was appointed in 1991 by then-Governor Mario Cuomo to fill the
vacancy created by the resignation of John Santucci, has been reelcted
easily ever since — the last time with all four major party
reaction to our suggestion that the system would serve the people more
effectively if there were true competition in elections, Brown
responded, “I think it is indicative of the fact that we’re doing a
good job. It means that people from all the major parties came to the
conclusion that we’re doing what we are supposed to be doing.”
reference to, “the four major party endorsements” — Democrat,
Republican, Conservative and Liberal — in spite of the fact that the
Liberal Party lost its accreditation in the last election and has been
below #4 in New York for some time, is illustrative of the long thread
of New York political history sewn into the fabric of his office makeup.
Brown admits to reading five newspapers every morning and has probably
been doing so for his five decades in public service.
lunch opened identically to the way it did in 2001. The sandwiches were
set around the table for the Judge, his Press Secretary, Pat Clark,
Tamara and me.
sat down and asked with a smile, “Having a good time?”
having a ball,” he shot back with a bigger smile.
admired him ever since he left the Appellate Division bench in 1991 to
accept the DA appointment. Here I sat with the tough, top law
enforcement guy in the borough, but he was filled with compassion and
spite of his position, he has been able to speak out and oppose the
death penalty. Even though it runs against his conscience, the DA’s
office has sought the death penalty — most recently for John Taylor in
the Wendy’s case, the first time the jury system in Queens has decided
to take a life since the 1995 reinstatement of capital punishment.
said: “I believe I have an appropriate record in terms of enforcing
the [death penalty] law. I do what the law requires me to do . . .
I don’t look at the death penalty as an issue of morality, as
far as I personally am concerned . . . It is costly to implement . . .
the commitment of time, money and man power necessary for a capital case
is enormous and it takes from other cases. But I think what bothers me
most is that it offers to the families of the victims and the survivors
a false sense of closure. They never get closure and they will not get
closure until the time he (referring to Taylor) is executed or the court
decides he will not be executed.”
Brown’s curious collection of memorabilia.
Wendy’s Case was, “The most important case we have handled in many
years . . . It was a major test of New York’s death penalty
lived with the victims’ families for two and a half years now
. . . I promised them I’d give them my best.”
a DA’s moral resolve doesn’t stop with the death penalty.
do you feel when you find out that someone has been wrongly
convicted,” I asked just moments after the five wrongly convicted
youths in Central Park jogger case were set free.
nothing much you can say, but it’s still the best system in the world.
There are so many checks and balances in the system . . . it is a very
rare case indeed [when someone is falsely convicted]. I don’t want to
go ahead to prosecute a case unless I think it’s justified . . .
Everybody’s looking for the truth . . . I can go ahead and look at
myself in the mirror in the morning [because I believe] that there are
enough checks and balances in the system.”
Sept. 11, the DA’s office has been impacted significantly. Brown
started by talking about the budgetary impact: two and a half percent
budget cut last December; seven and a half percent this year; and
another three and a half expected.
are prepared to do more with less.” His fear, however, is that the
cuts will impact the significant progress Queens crimefighters have made
over the past 10 years.
Assistant District Attorney John M. Ryan returned from a Manhattan
presentation by Robert Muller – head of the FBI – and pointed out
that the concern was for the Police Department and the DA’s office not
to be cut disproportionately. Since the DA is the funnel for the work of
the cops and the Queens DA has made strides in getting cops back to the
streets and not caught up waiting for trial processes, they must remain
as effective so as not to negatively impact the police.
also spoke about reallocating resources after Sept. 11.
go out on Roosevelt Avenue and you can buy a Social Security card, a
driver’s license, a passport.” In three months, the Identity Task
Force shut down seven “mills” for phony IDs.
DA’s office did background checks on “all 40,000 employees at
Kennedy and LaGuardia who have access cards to the tarmac” and found a
“couple hundred chargeable” for things like outstanding warrants,
falsified identifications and concealed arrests.
said he believes it is safe to fly out of Queens airports and “the
screening process is adequate.” He spoke
about having to take his own shoes off as he recently passed
through security even though he was with a detail of armed officers. He
maintained that screeners should not be profiling: “They should be
screening everyone . . . the little bit of inconvenience everyone has to
put up with is worth it.”
the 90s, we attacked violent crime . . . We had to go after auto theft
and organized crime,” Brown explained. Now resources are moving and
the office is spending “a great deal of time on insurance fraud and
has always been my opinion that banking and credit card [companies] are
not committing enough of [their] resources to the law enforcement side
and too much to the marketing [of credit cards].”
staff includes 300 Assistant District Attorneys (ADA’s); an NYPD Squad
of 30 people; and a State Police Unit – seven full-time Troopers.
handle 60,000 arrest cases a year. Their in-take bureau works from 6
a.m. to 1 or 2 in the morning.
do very well on the disposition of our cases,” Brown observed.
you are indicted by the grand jury here [in Queens], you plead guilty to
the top count or you go to trial. We don’t plea bargain.”
we started talking stats, Jimmy Quinn, executive assistant DA for
Trials, joined us. Coincidentally, the Judge explained, it was Jimmy’s
25th Anniversary in the Queens DA office.
beamed with pride as he ran through the numbers and shared a borough
comparison printout of felony arrests, indictments, convictions and
prison sentences. The info is clear; the Queens DA’s office shines . .
. as does Dick Brown and his impressive team.
office has changed under Brown. They have a “misdemeanor recidivist
program” to identify and target repeat offenders, A Domestic Violence
Unit, a 24-hour hotline that processes police activity information as it
is received. They have relied heavily on computers and technology to
make their performance more effective.
the end of any given day we will know that any one of our cases is taken
care of,” Brown explained.
have their own version of the Police Department’s COMPSTAT program,
and Brown meets three mornings a week at 8 and 9 a.m. with different
bureaus to discuss “pending cases; what they are doing; they brief me
so I can know what’s going on.”
to the crime scene is part of the job. “I’m not hearing [the
details] cold around this table . . . It helps me in terms of
understanding that case.”
enjoy the job immensely. I’m very proud of [the work the office
does],” the Judge emphasized.
he begins his campaign for reelection in 2003 for another four years, he
insists he’ll keep running, “As long as I am satisfied that we are
running one of the best prosecutor’s offices in the State.”
with a bit of whimsy, he pointed to Bob Morgenthau, his colleague from
Manhattan and acknowledged with a smile Morgy’s 28 years in office —
and he’s still going — as a record worth shooting for.
Brown sat back smiled and took a moment to reflect about the DA’s
office and said, “It has been extraordinarily good to me.”
one, not-so-impartial observer, I observe, he’s been extraordinarily
good for it.
Column contributor: Tamara Hartman
by Dom Nunziato
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: MSchenkler@queenspress.com