By David Brand
Though Queens is regarded as the most diverse county in the United States, the demographics of the District Attorney’s Office don’t yet reflect the ethnic and racial mix of the borough, according to employment data from the office.
A perceived lack of diversity has been a key focus of the seven Democratic candidates for Queens District Attorney. It has also informed the work of various local bar associations and community activists throughout Queens, who say the staff composition should better represent the borough’s population. Demographic statistics from the Queens DA’s office back up their perceptions and anecdotal experiences.
The Queens DA’s Office employed 343 assistant district attorneys — 190 women and 153 men — as of Sept. 6, 2018. Roughly 30 percent of the ADAs were Latinx, black/African American or Asian, compared to roughly 75 percent of all Queens residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2018.
The DA’s office reported that 39 of its assistant district attorneys (11.4 percent) were African-American; 31 assistants (9 percent) were Hispanic or Latinx; and 34 of the assistants (9.9 percent) were Asian.
The American Community Survey reports that 20.5 percent of Queens residents are black or African-American; 28 percent are Hispanic or Latinx; 27.1 percent are Asian; and 25 percent of Queens residents are white, non-Hispanic or non-Latinx.
White men occupy nine of the office’s top 12 positions, according to the office’s staffing information. The district attorney and chief assistant district attorney are both white men, as are four of five executive assistant district attorneys and three of five deputy executive assistants. One executive ADA is an African American man, one deputy executive ADA is an African American man and another executive ADA is a white woman.
“Diversity matters and inclusion matters, and it needs to be reflected in these offices because it’s about being able to empathize with the community, understand the issues, represent them and reflect them,” said Finda Gbollie, an attorney with Five Borough Defenders and a member of the Queens for DA Accountability coalition, which advocates for justice reform initiatives in the DA’s office.
In Queens and citywide, people of color make up a disproportionate number of criminal defendants — further highlighting the contrast between prosecutors and the people they prosecute, Gbollie said.
During a court-observing shift in Queens Criminal Court on Feb. 12, for example, the Police Reform Organizing Project found that 21 of 22 (95.5 percent) of defendants were people of color. That number was slightly lower than the citywide total of 96.7 percent that PROP counted during four court-monitoring shifts in each borough but Staten Island last month.
Gbollie said the people of color she represents often do not think they will be given a fair shot when they encounter few prosecutors who look like them.
“What it feels like is ‘These people do not care about us … They don’t understand my situation,’” she said. “If you have a DA’s Office that’s more reflective of the communities they serve, you break up that dynamic. It’s actually helpful on all sides: diversity and inclusion is the only way to understand the other. That’s how you build respect.”
Men of color are particularly underrepresented in the Queens DA’s office.
There were 12 African-American men and 27 African-American women; 11 Hispanic/Latino men and 20 Hispanic/Latina women; and nine Asian men and 25 Asian women working as prosecutors.
Overall, 32 of the 343 ADAs (9.3 percent) were men of color.
“There are hundreds of men of color being prosecuted in Queens, and those numbers are horrible,” said defense attorney Victoria Brown-Douglas, who is black. “When my clients look in my face, they see what’s possible for themselves.”
Brown-Douglas, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan, recently founded the Southeast Queens Court Watch program to observe Queens Supreme Court arraignments and report their findings to the communities. The members will pay specific attention to the demographics of the assistant district attorneys, she said. Last month, CourtWatch NYC also began monitoring arraignments in Queens.
On its website, the Queens DA’s Office says it is “especially sensitive” to “reaching into [Queens’] culturally diverse areas.”
A spokesperson for Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown described the office’s specific outreach efforts.
“Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown has always recognized the need to have a diverse office of prosecutors and support staff in order to successfully serve the many cultures and communities of Queens County,” the spokesperson said. “Every year we send an executive assistant to various minority job fairs in an effort to recruit more people of color to join the Queens District Attorney’s Office. We have maintained strong relationships with various professional organizations to attract lawyers of all races and backgrounds. Listed below are the job fairs and professional organizations the Office regularly and aggressively seeks new candidates for assistant district attorney positions.”
The job fairs and organizations include the Southeastern Minority Job Fair, National Black Prosecutors Association, Lavendar Job Fair, Hispanic National Bar Association, Public Interest Legal Career Fair, National Latina/o Law Student Association, Asian American Bar Association of New York, National Black Law Students Association - Northeast Region and the Midwest-California-Georgia Consortium Program, the spokesperson said.
The disparities in the Queens DA’s Office reflect a broader trend among prosecutors’ offices in the region. In fact, Queens employed a higher percentage of people of color than most prosecutors’ offices in the area as of July 9. The DA’s office provided demographic data of local prosecutors’ offices based on a report by the New York Law Journal.
Queens had a higher percentage of prosecutors of color (30 percent) than New York County (22.9 percent), neighboring Nassau County (15.1 percent), Suffolk County (9.8 percent), Westchester County (21.7 percent), the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York (16.5 percent) and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (17.8 percent).
Only Bronx County (34.1 percent) and Kings County (33.9 percent) had a higher percentage of prosecutors of color than Queens.
But proportional representation alone does not bridge the gap between institutions like the DA’s Office and communities disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, said Queens Democratic Socialists of America organizer Zohran Mamdani. Mamdani is a member of the Queens for DA Accountability coalition.
Prosecutors must also consider the impact of policies on communities of color, he said.
“We’re working with the coalition and groups across the borough to make the office more representative of the borough,” Mamdani said. “Representation is critical, but it’s not the be-all end-all. Part of transforming the office is who is represented and the other part is what policies are put forth — that’s the primary fight.”
This article is Part One in a series about demographics in the Queens District Attorney’s Office and the legal profession overall.