Richard Brown’s recent passing brought to a close his nearly three-decade career as district attorney in Queens—a remarkable tenure that coincided with a dramatic shift in crime that today places New York City among the safest big cities in the United States.
For many, the former appellate judge’s 28 years at the helm represent a remarkable success, given the level of relative safety and security communities throughout Queens and across the city enjoy today. For others, Brown’s long hold on the office came with a rigidity that failed to change with the times, making Queens a holdout to reforms. Either way, the unparalleled changes the city has faced since Brown was first appointed in 1991 will remain inseparable from his ultimate legacy.
“Dick was 24/7 as district attorney,” Herrick Feinstein partner Scott Mollen told the New York Law Journal.
Mollen said his relationship with Brown and his family was multigenerational, and vice versa. His prior firm represented members of Brown’s family, including his father. Brown served as an associate justice on the Appellate Division, Second Department while Mollen’s father, Milton Mollen, was presiding justice.
Scott Mollen said one area that may be overlooked in Brown’s history was his time on the bench, both in terms of the impact he had as a judge and how it helped inform his efforts as district attorney.
“I know that, during my father’s service as presiding justice, he valued very highly Richard’s input and ideas,” he said. “I think that on the court, he helped in general by serving on committees related to the court system, and in essence, acted as a representative of the appellate division in a role that was supporting of my father’s work.”
When the opportunity arose for the appointment of a new Queens district attorney following the resignation of John Santucci, Mollen said Brown believed he could bring to bear on the position his experience as an attorney, appellate judge and counsel to Gov. Hugh Carey.
“Richard always wanted to accomplish things that improved the way government operated,” Mollen said. “Being district attorney allowed him to be not merely an adviser, but to be the person making many decisions.”
As an adviser to Brown’s first campaign for DA in 1993, Mollen said he watched Brown make an immediate and initial but lasting impact by professionalizing the office, moving it away from a patronage institution and more toward the standards of professionalism set by Manhattan’s long-serving district attorney, Robert Morgenthau.
“He was extremely focused on hiring excellent students coming out of law school, and other experienced people. He understood that the responsibility of the office required that he hire the best and brightest that he could find,” Mollen said. “He didn’t know how to operate a third-rate office. He would do everything in his power to make sure the office was a first-rate office.”
Executive Assistant District Attorney Robert Masters joined the Queens DA’s office the year prior to Brown taking over. He, too, saw one of Brown’s lasting legacies as the professional evolution into “one of the finest prosecutors offices in the country.”
“He really personified what I think is the distinction that can frequently be lost, between being an elected official and a politician,” Masters said.
Brown believed he owed his constituents the truth, “not what they wanted or hoped to hear at a particular time, but the truth,” Masters recalled.
As an office, Masters said Brown created policies 20 years ago that today continue to be seen as innovations. He pointed to mentorship programs in community schools, the creation of drug courts to combat abuse years ago, and the Queens Court Academy as just a few of the way Brown advanced the office over the years, so often with an incremental approach to ensure “things can be done better.”
“The reality is that others are going to hold his office in the future. I don’t know that anyone’s ever going to replace him,” Masters said.
As news of his passing circulated, statements of praise and mourning were issued. Among them was state Attorney General Letitia James, who called Brown “a dedicated public servant who was deeply devoted to the people of Queens,” and New York State Bar Association president Michael Miller, who offered praise for Brown “devoting nearly 50 years of his extraordinary career to the pursuit of justice as a highly respected jurist and prosecutor.”
“Today our city mourns a dedicated public servant.” Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted out from his government account over the weekend. “As the longest-serving DA in Queens history, Richard Brown was committed to making this city safer and brought hundreds of men and women into law enforcement.”
Even before his passing, Brown’s long battle with Parkinson’s disease required changes that impacted the office going forward. In January Brown said he would not seek reelection. Then, in March, he announced his plan to resign in June.
The imminent changing of the guard has created a new fount of criticism and critique about the Queens district attorney’s practices, specifically from those seeking to replace Brown. These joined an already vocal group of defense attorneys, legal observers and activists who have effectively pushed for substantial criminal justice reforms in recent years—and who saw the Queens District Attorney’s Office as an impediment at times.
St. John’s School of Law professor Kate Levine saw the shifts occurring around how the office has operated as a reaction to “a sort of old-guard, law-and-order retrenchment and regressive view on what should and shouldn’t be prosecuted.”
Whereas more recently elected district attorneys in the city have been eager to spearhead initiatives around marijuana prosecutions, conviction review units and other progressive criminal justice reforms, the Queens office, under Brown, has been resistant to change.
“It’s that trope of this sort of older white male prosecutor not reforming the office as quickly as some of us might hope,” Levine said.
Still, even some of those who’ve been most consistently on the opposite side of issues with the DA’s office spoke of their respect for him.
Tim Rountree, The Legal Aid Society’s attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice in Queens, said it was “no secret” the defense bar and prosecutors in the District Attorney’s Office weren’t going to “see eye-to-eye” on any number of issues. But, he added, “it doesn’t mean you don’t have mutual respect” for one another.
“You’re not always going to agree, but you can agree to disagree, and you do the best work as you can possibly do for the people of Queens County,” Rountree said, noting his “tremendous respect for” Brown’s work as a public servant.
He pointed to the collaborative work done by the Queens District Attorney’s office with the defense bar and other community stakeholders in the creation of the drug courts and other early alternatives to incarceration programs as a “long-standing and tested legacy” of Brown’s time as district attorney.
“Overall, he had the citizens of Queens’ in his best interests, and he wanted to do the right thing,” Rountree said. “Now, it’s time to turn our attention to the future.”
Funeral services for Brown are set to be held at The Reform Temple of Forest Hills on Tuesday, following a procession from the Queens courthouse beginning at 10 a.m.