From a crippling drug epidemic to soaring rates of domestic violence, District Attorney Michael McMahon has his work cut out for him
By JENNIFER VIKSE • Photos By Amessé Photography
District Attorney Michael McMahon always wanted to be a lawyer.
“Even from a very young age, I would sign my name ‘Michael E. McMahon, esq.,’” he recalled with a grin. While he knew he wanted to pursue law, one wonders if that younger man ever imagined he’d be his hometown’s top crime fighter.
Raised in Stapleton, one of seven children, he went to work at a young age, as did his brothers and sisters, to help bring in money for the household and for his education at Monsignor Farrell High School.
“My mother immigrated to this country from Germany and instilled in all of us that a work ethic was very important,” McMahon said. “Money was also tight; I had two paper routes with my brothers in the Grymes Hill Houses, and when my mother went to work as a waitress at the old Demyan’s Hofbrau, I followed, sweeping floors, washing dishes, busing and waiting tables, and later bartending. My brothers and I all contributed.”
Once at Farrell, McMahon became involved in Student Government and went on to be president of the student body in his junior year. “That was an early taste for me of a close election, the excitement of serving in elected office, and making a difference to my community,” he said.
McMahon graduated from New York University in 1979, later obtaining a law degree, cum laude, from New York Law School in 1985, where he met his wife of 30 years, Judith (who serves as Administrative Judge of the county’s Supreme Court). He began practicing law in New York and New Jersey in 1986.
Having gotten a taste for elected office in high school, the young lawyer worked as counsel to Assemblyman Eric N. Vitaliano and Assemblywoman Betty Connelly, and later did legislative work for Jerome X. O’Donovan.
“At the same time, I was drawn to civic activism and served as a Civic Association President for many years, tackling projects such as the revitalization of Forest Avenue and anti-graffiti campaigns. I was always drawn to experiences and ways that could make my neighborhood, my community, and Staten Island better. I ran for City Council after O’Donovan’s term ended, and was fortunate to be elected to represent the North Shore,” the Democrat recounted.
In addition to serving in the City Council from 2002 to 2008, McMahon practiced trial law for 25 years, running his own law firm, which afforded him the opportunity to appear in courts at all levels throughout New York State. (“That experience prepared me with the skills needed to oversee and effectively administer the best and most-qualified prosecutors in the state,” he said.) In addition, he served in Congress from 2009 to 2011. The combined experiences left him with a resume that included having written laws at the City Hall, Albany, and Federal levels, managing budgets, and relationship building with community organizations, civic groups, schools, and agencies within Staten Island—along with his own successful law practice.
While those experiences made him uniquely qualified to bridge gaps between the community and law enforcement, why run for DA after so many successful years in the private sector?
A devoted Staten Islander, McMahon—a father of two who resides in West Brighton with his wife—was not content to watch the issues facing the borough (the drug crisis, domestic violence, and shootings, to name but a few) reel out of control while the district attorney’s office went underfunded.
“This to me was the office where leadership was needed most and where I could put my skills to best use to make an impact on Staten Island as a whole,” McMahon said. “Congress was in many ways a fascinating job, but this is just as fascinating and meaningful because of the daily impact we are able to make.”
In addition, his varied government and courtroom experience will serve him well when it comes to making positive changes for the Island.
“I know how to work with our team of elected officials to push for policy changes that will make my office more effective in the courtroom and our streets safer,” he said confidently. “I know how to secure the resources we need to transform the DA’s office into a modern, problem-solving office worthy of Staten Island. And, since the office has been historically underfunded, and is in dire need of additional funds to tackle the heroin crisis and other vital issues, this is a critical skill.”
After a tense race, McMahon was elected and began serving as Richmond County DA on January 4. The problems facing the borough in 2016 are daunting, and crime prevention is a top priority.
While he credits the Richmond County DA’s office for historically being reactive to crime by accepting cases brought by the NYPD, he envisions a more proactive approach.
“I want to expand that outlook so that RCDA is not only prosecuting the cases that are brought to us, but also working to proactively investigate and prevent crime before it happens,” he explained. “After all, a crime prevented is better than a crime prosecuted,” adding that he understands that the Island has a long way to go in order to play this more proactive role. He cites community engagement, education initiatives, and programming for youth and workforce development as ways of making strides. “Another way is to focus on intelligence-driven prosecution and to build better evidentiary cases using new and advanced technology. The notion of intelligence-driven prosecution is based on data that shows that 75 percent of crime is committed by a very small (1 to 2 percent) portion of the population, and that by focusing efforts and utilizing prosecutorial best practices and cooperation among agencies, we can concentrate efforts on that crime-driver population to really make an impact.”
To that end, McMahon is working to build and expand the office’s Crime Strategies Unit. He has brought on Tom Ridges, a former Trial Zone Chief in the Brooklyn DA’s Office (and who had also worked in the NYPD) to oversee that Unit, the Narcotics Bureau, and the Investigations Bureau. “By focusing on the interconnectivity of those areas and the drivers of crime in our borough, we have already made dramatic progress in our first few months,” McMahon said.
In addition to crime prevention, a growing heroin crisis—which has resulted in our community being dubbed “Heroin Island” and “Heroin’s New Hometown”—is at the forefront, killing as it is young people across the borough from all socio-economic backgrounds and changing the methodology of dealing with addiction and prevention. The borough is leading the City in overdose deaths, with someone dying approximately every other day.
“This is a crisis that can be solved, but resources are needed to make that possible,” McMahon said, noting that the approach to ending the drug crisis is threefold: law enforcement, treatment and education, and prevention. He added that law enforcement is focusing on going after the supply, and differentiating between users and dealers/suppliers. This is imperative to “get users into treatment and get them the help they need so that they can stay out of the criminal justice system, and to get dealers into the criminal justice system and to hold them accountable for their actions.”
For his part, McMahon recently announced—in conjunction with the NYPD—the City’s first Overdose Response Initiative, established to investigate overdose deaths in an effort to root out drug dealers and offer supportive services to grieving families.
“Under this initiative, whenever a fatal overdose occurs, the NYPD immediately notifies my office and our two agencies begin gathering information regarding the deceased in an attempt to identify and locate the sources of narcotics that are killing our neighbors and ruining our neighborhoods,” the DA explained. “Staten Island’s NYPD Borough Commander Chief Edward Delatorre and Chief of Detectives Joseph Veneziano have been unwavering advocates and terrific leaders in this effort, and we are incredibly lucky and grateful to have them and the men and women of the NYPD as partners in the fight against this drug scourge.”
On the treatment front, the DA’s office works with Drug Treatment Court, the Borough President’s Office, City and State elected officials, Tackling Youth Substance Abuse, Community Health Action of Staten Island, Camelot Counseling, Daytop, Addiction Angels, and other partners to find additional ways to serve Islanders in need.
“[Our] domestic violence rate is increasing faster than any other borough in the City,” McMahon noted (a 64% increase from 2009 to 2014).
In terms of prevention, assistant district attorneys regularly attend PTA and community meetings, giving drug awareness and prevention programs to combat the cycle of addiction before it begins.
Another issue McMahon is tackling is the growing incidence of domestic violence. “Staten Island’s domestic violence rate is increasing faster than that of any other borough in the City,” he noted (a 64 percent increase from 2009 to 2014).
“I think it’s important that we create a separate Domestic Violence Bureau with a dedicated Chief and Deputy Chief to focus on these important cases. Every other borough has a separate Domestic
Violence Bureau, and Staten Islanders deserve the same, but again it’s a question of resources. We have asked the City for funding to make this possible and hope they will give us support, because it will go a long way to better serve the victims who are coming to us more and more every day.”
The DA’s office also can’t ignore the impact that Eric Garner’s death has had on the community and its relationship with law enforcement.
“[It was] one of the most charged incidents of law enforcement and community relations in the country in recent years,” noted McMahon. But Staten Island remains the only borough whose DA’s office does not have a Community Partnerships Unit, which, McMahon explained, is designed to build bridges and relationships to better prosecute and prevent crime.
“My office has already started to engage more by joining community meetings,” he said. “But we would like to create a dedicated unit to do ongoing outreach, plan workshops and trainings, and regularly attend community meetings so citizens can serve as the eyes and ears of the DA’s office in their areas, bridging the divide between law enforcement and the general public. This is a real opportunity in the making.”