This former police officer and rikers island chief has worn many hats during a decades long career, but his most important role is to inspire Staten Island youth
by Jessica Jones-Gorman • Photos By Robert Nuzzie
Ronald Gregg grew up during a tumultuous time for race relations in the United States, when discrimination and prejudice were widespread and virulent. But in one small Castleton Corners enclave, Gregg found unity.
“I lived in the Todt Hill Houses, which at the time was very multicultural,” Gregg explained, describing the social climate of his Staten Island youth. “It didn’t matter if you were black, white, or Hispanic. In our little section of the borough, everyone worked together and helped each other out. Parents kept each other’s kids in line; kids respected each other’s values and upbringing. You hear that saying, ‘It takes a village to help grow a family’? That was exactly the case where I grew up. It was a diverse but unified environment that shaped me during my formative years.”
There were mentors, too, like Chris Ignieri, a director of recreation for the New York City Parks Department assigned to the Todt Hill Houses, who, Gregg said, offered focus, direction, and guidance.
“He was a great coach who taught me about determination and character,” Gregg said. “It was because of him and so many others that I wanted to have an impact. I wanted to give back to the community because the community had given me so much.”
So, after studying art at the Fashion Institute of Technology and earning his bachelor’s degree from Buffalo State, Gregg joined the New York City Police Department in the early 1970s.
“You have to understand, it was a very different time,” he recalled. “There were many people who did not want the police in their community. They didn’t see the color of the individual, they only saw the color of the uniform. But because of my upbringing, I had a strong desire to work towards unification.”
Gregg launched his police career at the Staten Island Housing Bureau, one of very few African-Americans in that particular part of the force at the time. He immediately became involved in mentoring programs, working with underprivileged children in the borough.
“It was a natural transition for me,” he said. “And I found myself in a position of impact. I had the ability to shape the lives of our community’s youth—just as my mentors had done for me.”
But after several years on the force, Gregg realized that if he wanted to do even greater things for his community, he would have to further his education. So, he worked midnights and earned his master’s degree from the former Richmond College and went on to New York Law School, earning his law degree while working internships with former Richmond County district attorneys Tom Sullivan and Bill Murphy.
“I started focusing and retooling my energy and gained an extraordinary interest in law,” Gregg said. “Coming from the context of my career as a police officer and mentor, I was now seeing the criminal justice system from a new angle. It helped to define what my new purpose was going to be.”
After earning his law degree, Gregg was appointed to the Urban Fellows Program, where he was introduced to then mayoral candidate David Dinkins.
“He wasn’t too popular on Staten Island, so we came out to do some campaigning and to promote his centrist philosophy,” Gregg said. “Through that experience I had the great distinction of being appointed to the New York City Department of Corrections.”
Dinkins named Gregg trial commissioner of Rikers Island, the largest penal institution in the United States. In 1992, he was the youngest prison administrator in the country and earned accolades for creating a task force to reduce prison violence and the unnecessary use of force.
“It was very rewarding, because I was helping both officers and prisoners,” Gregg said. “We had a twofold approach to stemming violence: bringing justice to some corrections officers who were found to be using illegal force, but also holding prisoners accountable for their violent behavior.”
Gregg transitioned out of that role at the end of the Dinkins administration, and after 25 years of city service, decided to focus on his law practice.
“I had opened up my law firm, Gregg and Associates, with my good friend Larry Simon, who I had met while working for the D.A.,” Gregg said. And when Gregg was appointed a senior administrative law judge for the New York State Division on Human Rights, Simon became managing partner of the firm.
“Larry was, sadly, struck down in the infancy of his career at the age of 42…killed in a car accident,” Gregg said. “He was one of my closest friends, whom I respected tremendously. After his death, I had to make a decision about how I could best serve the community—as a judge or as a beacon of hope as a defense attorney in the firm that Larry and I had built.”
So Gregg cycled out from his judgeship in 2007 to follow in the footsteps of Simon.
“Larry’s death inspired us to continue developing a world-class law practice,” Gregg said. “We dedicated ourselves to community development, and found ways to work pro bono for churches and other nonprofit institutions in need.”
Gregg also parlayed his art background into creating a specialty branch of his firm, one that handles entertainment. “We represent The Persuaders and Melba Moore, and helped launch the American Gospel Music Awards in the early 2000s, a project which was largely spearheaded by Larry Simon,” Gregg said.
Gregg is also president of The Global Lawyers, an international network of attorneys working in immigration and business law, counseling immigrants and corporations alike. It’s realms of expertise includes legal matters of banking, divorce, real estate, taxes, estate matters and probate, and prospective citizen matters like visa and green card applications.
A recipient of the Louis R. Miller Business Leadership Award, the NAACP Award for Outstanding Service, and the New York City Council’s Outstanding Community Service Award, Gregg said that his current focus is to make an imprint on Staten Island youth.
“Each individual has to make a determined effort to do what they can to be a mentor and leader in their community,” he concluded. “It allows you to look back from where you came and show young people that they, too, can achieve success. I feel so fortunate and blessed—that’s why I strive to assist and mentor, because that’s what helped me during my own humble beginnings.”