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Longtime Queens District Attorney Richard Brown dies

Brown was a law-and-order prosecutor who stuck to his approach amid shifting winds to the political left.

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown at his office

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown at his office in Kew Gardens on May 31, 2017. Brown died at age 86. Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Richard Brown, the Queens district attorney for nearly three decades, was remembered Saturday as an avowed advocate for crime victims and a law-and-order prosecutor who stuck to his approach amid shifting political winds.

Brown, 86, who had held office longer than any of his four counterparts in the other four New York City boroughs, died Friday night, his chief assistant announced — weeks before Brown was to resign early because of advancing Parkinson’s disease. 

In March, citing declining health, Brown said he would leave June 1 and turn over the office to the chief assistant, John Ryan. Brown's term was scheduled to conclude at the end of 2019.

"He was known to visit crime scenes, meet with victims and work tirelessly to give them justice," Ryan said in a statement announcing Brown's death. 

In the final years of Brown's tenure, his tough-on-crime approach, common among his contemporaries, fell out of fashion with his political party. There was a sharp shift to the left: fewer prosecutions, looser drug laws, more rights for accused criminals.

When Brown became the borough's district attorney in 1991, the number of annual murders in the city was at an all-time recorded high — 2,262 in 1990, a record to this day — and nearly all other major crime was spiking too. 

Over the next 28 years, his approach to criminal prosecution would dovetail with NYPD's contested broken-widows philosophy that tolerating petty offenses like turnstile jumping breeds major disorder like shootings.

Crime in the borough declined precipitously during his time in office, mirroring citywide trends. Last year, there were 295 murders. Brown, a Democrat since his youth, went unchallenged and won election seven times. 

“Together with his law enforcement colleagues throughout New York City, Judge Brown contributed greatly to making this City the safest big city in the nation,” Ryan said in a statement, using an honorific for Brown, a former jurist.

In the twilight of Brown's tenure, the political winds shifted in New York City and nationally, and the Democratic party began embracing a softer view of how crime is prosecuted and who should be imprisoned: In Philadelphia, former public defender Larry Krasner took office last year promising to reduce the number of people behind bars. In Boston, former federal prosecutor Rachael Rollins was sworn in this year and promised not to prosecute certain low-level crimes.

In recent years, as Brown's counterparts in other boroughs like Manhattan and Brooklyn reduced prosecutions for certain lower-level offenses, Brown largely embraced the status quo: the NYPD's policy on charging recidivist turnstile jumpers was "sound, logical and fair," he said last year. He opposed the legalization of marijuana, saying the issue needed more study.

All but a few of those vying to succeed Brown — the Democratic primary is June 25 — are promising to shift the office similarly to the left and reverse many of Brown's hallmark policies. Those contenders argue that prosecutions unfairly target black and Hispanic people disproportionately. Queens, like most of the city, is overwhelmingly Democratic, so the primary victor is almost certain to win the general election. 

Richard Allen Brown was born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, and graduated from Hobart College in 1953 and New York University Law School in June 1956.

Before becoming a judge, in 1973, Brown worked for the leadership of the State Legislature. He was a criminal courts judge, a supervising judge in Brooklyn and chief legal adviser to Gov. Hugh Carey. 

In a Newsday interview in 2017, Brown recalled how he arraigned Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz. On his first day as a New York City criminal court judge, Brown recalled years later, one defendant came to court with gun and began shooting wildly. As shots rang out, Brown ducked down behind his judicial bench and from that time in law enforcement circles he was known as "Duck Down Brown," something he would laugh about years later. 

Brown would become a justice on the bench of the state's intermediate appeals court bench.

He was appointed district attorney in 1991 by Gov. Mario Cuomo. Brown's predecessor left amid a controversy for prosecuting police officers accused of fatally choking a suspected car thief. Brown dropped the charges against four of the officers and reduced charges against the officer accused of doing the actual choking; the cop was acquitted. This infuriated the man's family.

Nassau County’s district attorney, Madeline Singas, who began her career in Brown’s office, said in a statement: “I remember a great man, my first boss and the person who showed me how to live a life in service.”

Ryan praised his longtime boss as a pioneer who founded one of the state's first separate courts for drugs, mental health and veterans, as well as units to address animal cruelty and opioid addiction "by providing a second chance for addicts to avoid criminal prosecution and to literally save lives."

Among his most notable prosecutions: the murder conviction in 1995 of an obstetrician for a woman's death during an abortion, robbers who murdered witnesses to a Wendy's holdup in 2000, and the officers who shot unarmed Sean Bell in 2006 on his wedding day.

For years, Brown struggled with Parkinson's — shaking and walking while holding the hand of his police bodyguard — but kept working.

Brown is survived by his widow, Rhoda, their three children and two grandchildren, according to his office. The funeral is Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills.

With Anthony M. DeStefano

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