NEW YORK — A New York City prosecutor and judge whose 40-plus years in criminal justice stretched from the gritty “Mean Streets” era of the 1970s to today’s opioid crisis has died at the age of 86.
Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown died Friday, Chief Assistant District Attorney John M. Ryan announced Saturday.
Brown was first appointed district attorney in 1991 by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Democrat. He was re-elected to six terms in office, running unopposed.
Brown announced in January that he would not seek re-election but would serve out the end of his term. Then in March he said he would step down on June 1 because of health problems associated with Parkinson’s disease.
He was a judge for 18 years before serving as a prosecutor and was known universally as “Judge Brown.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, son of the man who appointed Brown to fill a vacancy in the district attorney’s office, said in a statement, “Judge Brown fought successfully to create safer neighborhoods and reduce crime in his borough. He took on the scourge of opioid addiction, fought to protect domestic violence victims, worked to end human trafficking and so much more.”
Madeline Singas, the district attorney of neighboring Nassau County and a former assistant in Brown’s office, said, “Judge Brown’s unparalleled dedication to the victims of crimes and their families has motivated scores of prosecutors throughout New York State. He was a man of intelligence, integrity and honesty, and New York City is a safer place because of his hard work.”
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. called Brown “an extraordinary lawyer who dedicated his life to public service” and said, “I will miss him greatly.”
As district attorney Brown oversaw the creation of programs including drug courts, a domestic violence bureau, an office of immigrant affairs and most recently the Queens Treatment Intervention Program, intended to help addicts avoid prosecution.
“He would often be the first person in the office and very likely the last to leave every day — and sometimes on weekends too,” said Ryan, who will run the office until after the election of a new district attorney in November of this year.
Violent crime rates plummeted during Brown’s 28 years as district attorney. The number of homicides in New York City fell from more than 2,100 in 1991 to fewer than 300 last year.
While Brown and his fellow prosecutors were credited with helping make the city a far safer place, critics said his tough-on-crime policies contributed to unjustly high incarceration rates for black and Hispanic New Yorkers. Protesters chanted “Take down Dick Brown” last fall as they rallied outside a courthouse against what they called his “uniquely punitive policies.”
Brown would have faced opposition if he had sought re-election this year, with several potential candidates vowing to reform the office. City Councilman Rory Lancman announced a challenge for the office last September promising to stop prosecuting low-level offenses and to create a wrongful conviction unit to review convictions from years past.
When Sean Bell, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot by police as he was leaving a Queens nightclub in 2006, some activists called for the appointment of a special prosecutor, arguing that Brown was too close to the police to prosecute the case aggressively. But Brown pursued criminal charges against three detectives involved in the shooting. They were acquitted by a judge.
Brown graduated from New York University’s law school in 1956. He worked for the state assembly and served as Mayor John Lindsay’s legislative representative in Albany before being appointed a criminal court judge in 1973.
A highlight of his judicial career came when he presided over the arraignment of “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz in 1977. Brown ordered the 24-year-old who had terrorized the city with a string of murders to undergo psychiatric testing and maximum security confinement.
“I remember the courtroom was packed to the rafters,” Brown told The Associated Press in 2017. “It was almost like the air was taken out of the room when he walked in.”
Brown continued to come in to the office as his health failed, associates said.
“His mind was 100 percent sharp,” said Arnie Kriss, a lawyer who ran Brown’s first campaign for district attorney and spoke with him often over the years. Kriss added, “He has given the city of New York and the state of New York 60 years of service that can be only classified as outstanding.”
Survivors include his wife, Rhoda; two daughters, a son and two granddaughters.