Thursday, June 24, 2010

After 50 Years of Service, DA Richard Brown Still Going Strong

By Tamara Best

Over the better part of the past two decades, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has just about seen it all.

Brown is the longest serving district attorney in county history and has more than 50 years in public service. On Thursday, Brown was honored with a plaque for his work by the John F. Kennedy Regular Democratic Club.

“We had him as a guest speaker and he’s a very special individual to us,” said Jeff Gottlieb, president of the club. “He’s very personable and approachable, He treats everyone the same and does a great job.”

Raised in Queens, Brown held several judicial positions including Justice of the Supreme Court in Queens County. He said having a judicial background has helped in his work as the district attorney.

In 1991, he was appointed Queens district attorney by then-Governor Mario M. Cuomo. Brown said he can still recall the struggle he faced when he was elected district attorney for the first time in the early 1990s.

“When I started out in 1991 it was a very bad year,” he said, adding that the county - much like other areas of the nation - grappled with the crack epidemic that left communities paralyzed with drug addiction and violence. “We had 361 homicides in my first year.”

Brown was later elected to a full four-year term as district attorney in the November 1991 general election and re-elected in 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007.

In his role as district attorney, Brown said a key emphasis is being visible and accessible.

“I get to the crime scenes because it is important to maintain a close relationship with law enforcement,” Brown said.

Three days a week, he meets with different bureaus to stay up to date on the cases. “If I ask a question I want an answer,” he said adding that “it helps everyone stay on their toes.”

Over the years, Brown said he has dealt with many memorable and tragic cases such as the College Point massacre of 1995 in which six people held hostage in a Queens apartment were killed. However, out of all the cases he has worked on, Brown said the Sean Bell case was the most “physically and emotionally taxing.”

“The Sean Bell case was the most difficult case I’ve had in a long time,” said Brown. “Emotions were high on both sides.”

Sean Bell, a 23-year-old man Queens man, was shot and killed on Nov. 25, 2006 outside of a Jamaica strip club just hours before his wedding. Bell, along with two friends, was inside a Nissan Altima, when five officers fired 50 bullets into the car. It was later determined that Bell and his two surviving friends were unarmed.

At 5:30 that morning, Brown said he took immediate action after receiving a call from an assistant district attorney alerting him to what happened.

“That morning I called three people: the mayor, the police commissioner and Al Sharpton.”

The case sparked controversy across the country, centering on discussions of race and use of deadly force by police. In 2008, Justice Arthur J. Cooperman acquitted the officers of all charges they faced in Bell’s shooting death.

High profile cases aside, Brown said each year and situation presents new challenges. One of the most substantial in the last few years has been the budget.

“We’ve taken budget reduction since 9/11, about 20 percent,” he said, resulting in a decrease in the amount of assistant district attorneys and forcing law enforcement to do more with less.

When asked by members of the Democratic Club his thoughts on the current budget deadlock in Albany, he said he hopes it will resolve itself soon.

Despite the early days and late nights of the job, Brown said he still looks forward to going to work everyday.

“The agency is busy 24/7 and I love it,” Brown told the audience.

As for when he will retire, he says it’s too soon to tell. “It’s been a wonderful career and it’s not over by a long shot.”

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