SEATTLE - Nick Brown knows his way around downtown Seattle; he walks it every day.
He’s seen all the good and the bad a trip to downtown has to offer—from the corner drug sale, to the selling of stolen goods and people in crisis.
"I see a lot of suffering and pain that comes with being displaced and living unhoused," Brown said as he walked through an encampment by the Westlake Shopping Center. "We can’t conflate crime with homelessness."
His perspective on crime and punishment is important.
In October, he was sworn in as President Biden’s pick to be the new U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, and the first African-American to hold that job in the state.
"My father was a child of the Jim Crow south; his entire family has imparted on me racism and hatred they faced throughout their lives," said Brown.
"Being the first black US Attorney in Washington state history is meaningful, but also only really meaningful if we shift how we think about justice," said Brown. "The justice system has not always been fair and equitable for marginalized communities."
Federal prosecutors tend to have a broad focus on crimes that involve lengthy, complex investigations like gun and drug trafficking cases that cross jurisdictions.
Brown has taken a particular interest in using his position to help local law enforcement with street crime, which is typically not prosecuted at the federal level.
"I have discretion about the types of cases that we take," said Brown.
Brown joined Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, Seattle Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz and other federal law enforcement agencies and the King County Prosecutor’s office for "Operation New Day," an emphasis on crime prevention in downtown Seattle, including the troublesome Third Avenue corridor.
"I can make sure as the chief federal law enforcement officer for this district that the FBI, ATF and DEA are all working collaboratively with the Seattle Police Department or other agencies," said Brown.
His walks through downtown have reason. He gave up his parking spot at the Federal Courthouse to co-workers, and now commutes by bus.
"I’ve always taken the bus," said Brown. "As I walk through downtown, you kind of get a sense of the pulse and energy of the city, what's happening on the street level."
It is that street-level perspective that plays a big role in his office’s involvement to solve the simmering issue of street crime, which has caused so many issues downtown. He’s seen Seattle Police increase its presence along Third Avenue.
"It feels different. I mean on the one hand, it feels better because there's less visible crime happening on this block," said Brown. "On the other hand, there's police presence everywhere, and no one wants to live in a police state."
But, he is not a ‘throw them in jail, toss away the key’ kind of prosecutor.
"I certainly think that the United States, the Department of Justice, many local prosecutors’ offices have historically relied on overly severe sentences," he said. "So, I have directed my team to think about what we need to do, to sentence that person to keep the community safe, and is no more than necessary."
And speaking of severe sentences—what was it like to be ‘voted off the island?’ Brown laughed at the question. When he was 23, single and a law student, he was a contestant on the second season of Survivor.
"I still remember telling my Army colonel father that I was dropping out of Harvard Law School to do this show," said Brown. "He had the look of fear on his face of his son throwing his life away for this silly thing."
Brown survived several tribal council votes but was eventually voted off the island and finished seventh out of 16 contestants.
"I have no regrets about doing Survivor. If I didn't have a family to raise, I’d probably do it again, it was fun," said Brown. "Had I won, I probably wouldn’t be here."
21 years later, he got the vote that really mattered—by President Biden—who chose him to be Western Washington’s U.S. Attorney.
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