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caption: Nick Brown is the new U.S. Attorney for Western Washington. He says civil rights cases, both civil and criminal, are among his top priorities.
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Nick Brown is the new U.S. Attorney for Western Washington. He says civil rights cases, both civil and criminal, are among his top priorities.
Credit: KUOW/Amy Radil

Seattle’s new U.S. Attorney: ‘Mass incarceration is a legit problem’

Western Washington has a new U.S. Attorney. Nick Brown was appointed by President Biden, and sworn in as the region’s top federal prosecutor earlier this month. Brown is the first Black U.S. Attorney to serve this district. And he has some big changes in mind.

As U.S. Attorney, Brown said his priorities will include addressing violent crime, fraud and cyber crime, and civil rights violations. These are excerpts from his conversation with KUOW.

A focus on civil rights division

“I’d really like to work to revitalize our civil rights division. We have always been involved in civil rights work but there’s a real opportunity now to focus on civil rights cases, both civil and criminal. I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface on the types of cases we can handle in that field.”

“But overarching those priorities is my sense that we really need to rethink the ways we do justice in America, including in this district. I think we’re at a right place and right time to try new approaches and not just incarcerate our way out of the issues that we have. I think there’s a lot of great work that prosecutors in this district and law enforcement personnel do. At the same time I recognize the really severe inequities we have in our criminal justice system in this district and across the country."

"Mass incarceration is a legit problem. There are other countries that do it far better than we do. And I think we have to look with a great deal of reflection and introspection at our past practices and ask ourselves, is the way we’re doing it the best suited for the public and the people we deal with. And I think the answer has to be no.”

Brown said while King County has put various alternatives to prosecution in place, the federal level has been slower to implement them.

On being the first Black U.S. Attorney for western Washington

“To be the first Black U.S. Attorney in the district means a lot. I remember when I worked in this office – I started in 2007 and left in 2013 – I remember after President Obama was elected and Eric Holder was put in the role of United States Attorney General and walking down the hallway on the fifth floor and seeing their pictures. For my entire career it had been two old white guys who were my leaders, and for the first time I had people who looked like me.”

"Coming now into this position knowing my background and the uniqueness of it means a great deal. At the same time, you can diversify an institution and not change anything. And so while representation matters – you bring a perspective to the job, that matters. You can be a role model and inspiration for others in community in terms of what they can aspire to. But if I do everything like everyone else has done it, it doesn’t really make much of a difference other than it looks better and makes people feel better. That’s not my goal."

“It only means a great deal if we bring and effectuate a different perspective and bring that to the work that we do and spread that to the people that work for us.”

Brown previously served as a federal prosecutor in this office, as general counsel to Governor Jay Inslee, and as a partner with Pacifica Law Group in Seattle.

Concerns about political extremism in Washington state

“I am really concerned about the rise in extremist actors in military communities and law enforcement communities. We’ve always been concerned about fairness and unbiased policing, and to see in certain areas that you have members of extremist groups as part of those organizations with a badge and authority should cause us all a great deal of concern."

"And that requires all of us to be very transparent about that, for prosecutor leaders, law enforcement leaders, community activists to hold people accountable to the people that work for them and make sure we’re properly vetting and eliminating those sorts of influences from the work that we do.

"I remember watching January 6 unfold on TV and on social media, and personally feeling a great deal of anger that people who were blatantly attacking our democracy and our country weren’t being charged and arrested as they streamed throughout our nation’s capitol."

"But very quickly afterwards, the Department of Justice started to bring cases, and now hundreds of cases. And as they continued to pursue and arrest people, I’ve been really happy with their response. I think in retrospect the approach they took was the right one, so I’m happy about that and we just have to continue to pursue those.”

Federal response to Seattle Black Lives Matter protests

“We ended up – before I got here – but we ended up charging a handful of cases arising from the protests, mostly dealing with arson offenses and attacks on federal property. Other than that, we deferred to the locals, both the city and the county, to charge cases as they deemed appropriate because most of the activity did not involve federal crimes."

"I want to be careful that although we associate it with the protests, there were thousands of people protesting rightly and we need to be very mindful of the positivity that comes from protests even though it makes people uncomfortable. I enjoy seeing people protest and exercise their First Amendment rights and that’s something we should encourage when they feel injustice has been done."

"My hope is that the further away we get from the protests, that we don’t lose sight of the message people were trying to deliver with those. I think protest is a positive, it can bring our attention to things the public was neglecting: the incidences of racial injustice and bias, and concern about how we police and where we police in this district and otherwise. That is something people in the community have been feeling acutely for generations."

"It took mass protests, it took the murder of another Black man in George Floyd, it took those tragic incidences for the broader community to start really paying attention and questioning the way we’ve done things.”