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OpinionColumnistsLeonard Levitt

The politics shaping DA's race

The late Richard Brown is remembered as the city's last hard-right prosecutor.

The late Queens District Attorney Richard Brown at

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

Richard Brown died last week with his boots on, so to speak. He’d hoped to resign on June 1, the 28th anniversary of his appointment as Queens district attorney. Instead he died last week of Parkinson’s disease.

Brown is remembered as the city’s last hard-right prosecutor — and one of the few honorable DAs in a borough traditionally held by Democratic Party hacks, or worse. He succeeded John Santucci, who presided from a phone line from his Florida home and who resigned after the disclosure in now-defunct New York Newsday that he had attended a long, closed-door lunch at the Altadonna restaurant with an associate of the Gambino crime family.

Jack Ryan, a longtime chief assistant of Brown, will effectively run the DA’s office until a new DA is elected. Like Brown, Ryan is an old-school guy: He believes in prosecuting minor crimes such as fare-beating and marijuana smoking, policies that have gone out of fashion as the city political mood has shifted to the left.

Back in the day, when homicides topped 2,000 annually, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and then-NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton were regarded as saviors for their zero-tolerance policies. With crime now at record lows, some criticize those same policies as having destroyed black families by sending many black men to prison for minor offenses.

The city’s new mood has turned the police into “enemies of the people,” as the saying goes. While the city focuses on this week’s departmental trial of Daniel Pantaleo, whose supposed chokehold caused the death of Eric Garner, a criminal trial of a police captain is underway in the Bronx. Naoki Yaguchi is accused of official misconduct because hours passed before he ordered a Breathalyzer test for a supposedly drunken detective involved in an off-duty car accident. Why this case warrants a criminal trial as opposed to an administrative one is unclear. But should Yaguchi be found guilty, he will lose his pension and his career — penalties as severe as those for Pantaleo if found guilty in Garner’s death.

Still, Queens’ political landscape is changing. The DA primary features several candidates: The two best known, borough President Melinda Katz and City Councilman Rory Lancman, have no law enforcement experience. Greg Lasak, a former hard-line prosecutor who gave up his judgeship to run, is viewed as a dark horse.

Alas, the most qualified candidate is not running. He is George Grasso, a Queens resident and former NYPD deputy commissioner-turned-compassionate Bronx judge. With the job of DA changing, he can perhaps be more effective from the bench.

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