NEW YORK (Reuters) - When lawyer Peter Zimroth was asked to become the new federal watchdog for the New York City Police Department’s “stop and frisk” program two weeks ago, he jumped at the chance to serve the city he grew up in.
“New York is in my blood,” said Zimroth, a partner at Arnold & Porter, who had previously worked as the city’s chief lawyer from 1987 to 1989.
“The job that I had as corporation counsel was the best legal job anyone could have,” he said in an interview. “It was a chance to give back, and that’s how I view this too.”
On Monday, after ruling that the NYPD’s controversial tactics amounted to racial profiling, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin appointed Zimroth to develop and implement a series of reforms to the program. The judge had called Zimroth a couple of weeks ago to make sure he could take the job before she announced it in the ruling.
In selecting Zimroth, Scheindlin chose an experienced lawyer whose resume includes stints as a federal and state prosecutor, a law school professor and a prominent civil litigator.
That diverse background will command respect from both sides, despite a potentially chilly reception from City Hall, colleagues said. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on Monday that the judge put the NYPD “into receivership” based on flimsy evidence.
Zimroth, 70, said he would strive to balance the need for effective policing with the reforms ordered by Scheindlin.
“She made it very clear that this is supposed to be a collaborative effort,” he said. “The role is not an adversarial one. I’ve had a lot of different experiences on a lot of different sides and what I’ve learned is that you have to listen to people - no one person has the answer.”
As the city’s corporation counsel under Mayor Ed Koch, Zimroth represented the NYPD and other city agencies. He worked closely with police while serving as the chief assistant for Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office.
He also has worked on constitutional issues. He previously served as one of three members of New York’s Capital Defender Office, which provided representation for defendants facing the death penalty. In New Jersey, he represents a mosque that is challenging a town’s zoning laws as discriminatory.
“From the city’s perspective, they have a very fine lawyer who was the city’s chief lawyer and who will be sensitive to the issues impacted by Judge Scheindlin’s order,” said Victor Kovner, who succeeded Zimroth as corporation counsel.
Christopher Dunn, associate legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, which brought one of two lawsuits that resulted in Scheindlin’s order, said he was pleased with Zimroth’s selection.
“There can be no complaint that he’s biased against the city,” Dunn said. “Having someone like Peter Zimroth just completely changes the debate about the role of a monitor.”
Last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo named Zimroth to a commission investigating public corruption in the state.
While serving as the city’s chief lawyer, Zimroth was known as the architect of the city’s public campaign financing law, created in response to a series of corruption scandals.
At Arnold & Porter, Zimroth has focused on products liability, securities and other areas. He is married to the accomplished New York stage actress Estelle Parsons.
Scheindlin’s order requires Zimroth to monitor the NYPD’s progress and issue reports on its compliance. City officials said they would appeal and ask the appellate court to stop the order from taking effect in the meantime.
There is little doubt Zimroth is aware of the disagreements that arise when judges place limits on city policies. In a 2008 legal journal article, he reflected on his experiences as the city’s top lawyer in dealing with such situations.
“I did not think that in general it was a good thing for the courts to have such a substantial role in the day-to-day operation of city government,” Zimroth wrote.
“But I also believed that the courts played a necessary role in ensuring that government agencies lived by the laws .... One of the hardest parts of my job as corporation counsel was to deal with the tensions created by these conflicting perspectives.”
Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Richard Chang