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Queens DA Richard Brown Says Funding Cuts Threaten Wiretaps

By DNAinfo Staff on February 28, 2012 11:15am

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown at his Kew Gardens office.
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown at his Kew Gardens office.
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DNAinfo/Shayna Jacobs

KEW GARDENS — There isn't much in the way of crime that Queens District Attorney Richard Brown hasn't already seen.

The longtime law enforcement chief has overseen the prosecution of drug mules caught leaving Kennedy International Airport with drug-filled condoms lodged in their insides.

His teams have shut down drug gangs that allegedly used the Long Island Expressway as their own "heroin highway" to shuttle narcotics between the suburbs and the city, and prosecutions of murderers, assailants and thieves have been commonplace.

But his job doesn't stop there, Brown said. His office is also a national leader in one of the most productive forms of crime-fighting — wiretap investigations.

Large-scale investigations, often involving wiretaps, have been used by the office to take own mortgage fraud rings, identity thieves and drug operations. But such investigations are costly and time consuming and the DA has been petitioning Albany for years to send more funding his way.

"Mortgage fraud, narcotics investigations — they're all very labor intensive and it becomes difficult to go ahead and handle them all absent the kind of money we need to hire [assistant prosecutors]," the DA said, perched behind his large wooden desk in his memento and photo-filled office in Kew Gardens. 

The office used to hire about 50 new assistant district attorneys per year.  It now only hires about 20 or so to help tackle the 75,000 arrest cases per year, he said.

But an absence of adequate funding threatens the lengthy and often fruitful investigations the office conducts, the DA said.

"Where we've been hurt, where we've been cutting back, unfortunately, is on the investigative side," Brown said.

The veteran DA, who is respectfully referred to as "judge" by his devoted staff because of his time spent on the bench in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan, says he is going to keep prodding Albany for the money his office needs to put its investigative know-how into practice.

The office is also challenged by the distinctive qualities of serving a culturally — and linguistically — diverse borough which is bombarded with a constant wave of criminal activity due to the fact that major thoroughfares and airports call the borough home, Brown said.

The Queens population is nearly 50 percent foreign born with over 100 languages spoken.

The diversity is a factor in jury pool selection and in how cases are perceived by them. The attorneys in the office are constantly learning about cultural norms and about dealing with regional authorities, especially in the domestic violence field.

"It impacts [our office] all the times in ways we haven't even articulated," said Chief Assistant District Attorney John Ryan, who has been in the office almost as long as Brown.

The office has done presentations and outreach in the Chinese community in Flushing, for example, about reporting crimes and how victims are protected.
"They were very reluctant to talk to law enforcement as a cultural matter," Ryan explained, although there have been improvements.

Ryan said the office has also been dealing with a growing presence of runaway teen prostitutes, which they target with online stings.

Brown, who is in his 21st year as chief prosecutor of Queens County, said he's also proud of how his office has led the way on the handling of domestic violence cases.

The Queens DA's office is one of the few to move ahead with prosecuting alleged abusers even if the accuser backs out of cooperating with the case — a decision Brown believes can help save victims from their own vulnerabilities by reducing the incentive to intimidate victims.

According to figures provided by the office, Queens has the highest domestic violence conviction rate in the city.

Prosecutors rely on the victims' 911 calls, photographs of bruises or other injuries, and other evidence to seek convictions against the abusers even when the victims rescind their desire to press charges.

"We don't let her off the hook if she refuses to go forward," Brown said.

Prosecuting the batterers with or without cooperation of alleged victims helps ensure "the batterer doesn't come back and continue the assault on the woman," he added.

Brown, who's known for his outspokenness and hands-on approach, makes a habit of personally paying a visit to murder scenes within hours of the incident, while detectives are still in the early investigation stage.

"I felt it was was important that I understood a lot more of what it is cops are doing on the street, but also to get ourselves involved early on to understand more about the facts of the cases," he said.

"There's nothing like being at a crime scene."