Peter Zimroth

‘THE RIGHT PERSON FOR THE JOB’: Peter Zimroth, whose experience as both a top Federal and state prosecutor and city Corporation Counsel gave him good grounding in the justice system and community issues, according to the Federal Judge who tapped him as monitor for the settlement of the 2013 stop-and-frisk judgment against the city, ‘was the right person because of his career and background to communicate with both sides—both the police and the community,’ she said.

Peter Zimroth, a city Corporation Counsel under Mayor Ed Koch, who as the court-appointed monitor overseeing the NYPD's changes to stop-and-frisk procedures following a 2013 ruling by a Federal Judge that the policy had been applied unconstitutionally brought a nuanced approach to the complexity of reforms, died Nov. 8 of cancer.

His deputy in that role, Richard Jerome, in an email to the Daily News wrote that "Peter faithfully sought to inspire improvements in the New York City Police Department, build collaboration among the department, plaintiffs and the communities served, while effecting sustainable, positive changes in police practices."

'An Exemplary Leader'

Current Corporation Counsel Georgia M. Pestana in a statement called him "an exemplary and thoughtful leader who made enormous contributions to the people of this City. He was a dedicated and excellent Corporation Counsel who always demonstrated a strong moral compass and commitment to furthering the interests of the City."


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While Mayor de Blasio has long boasted of a dramatic reduction in stop-and-frisks during his tenure—from 192,000 in Michael Bloomberg's final year as Mayor to an average of about 12,000 in recent years—in his final report issued in September, Mr. Zimroth said there were indications that the numbers had been deflated by decisions by officers not to document some stops.

"There is substantial evidence suggesting that many NYPD officers did not submit reports documenting all of their stops of civilians in years 2016 to 2019," he wrote. "Those undocumented stops may undermine the reliability of statistical analyses to identify racially disparate stop report patterns and practices in NYC."

That skepticism was balanced by the willingness of Mr. Zimroth—who was tapped as monitor by then-U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin at the time she ruled in August 2013 that the Police Department frequently carried out stop-and-frisks during Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 12 years in office in an unconstitutional and discriminatory fashion—to acknowledge when progress was being made.

Praised Camera Program

Early this year, discussing the impact of officers being equipped with body-worn cameras under a 2017 contract agreement between the de Blasio administration and the Police Benevolent Association, he wrote, "The success of BWCs on NYPD officers seemed to improve the civility of police-citizen encounters as evidenced by a 21% reduction in citizen complaints against BWC treatment officers relative to control officers."

And, he added, for both groups, "citizen complaints of poor police behavior during encounters are fortunately rare events."

In an interview with this newspaper shortly after he was tapped by Judge Scheindlin for the watchdog role, Mr. Zimroth said that his three years as the city's top lawyer during the latter part of Mr. Koch's 12-year mayoralty had instilled in him "tremendous respect for the Police Department—not just the department in the abstract but for the people who serve the city and protect us."

But, he added, "at the same time I have always believed that effective law enforcement is very important—it's crucial—but so is the need for law-enforcement officials to act within the law and the Constitution."

His belief that there was nothing inconsistent in expecting that both ideals could be brought to policing was reflected in his reports over the years on NYPD progress in living up to the terms of Judge Scheindlin's settlement order.

'A Great Public Servant'

Judge Scheindlin, who retired from the bench in 2016, said of Mr. Zimroth's passing, "It's a great loss. Peter was a great public servant throughout his career. He did a great job of implementing the reforms that were needed" to produce greater transparency and statistical tracking of stops.

"It's not easy to change a culture, but he did a good job of it," she said in a Nov. 10 phone interview.

Asked what led her to choose him as the monitor, she said, "I thought he had the right background for it," having started his public-service career in the U.S. Attorney's Office, later following his boss there, Robert M. Morgenthau, to the Manhattan District Attorney's Office--where he served as Chief Assistant District Attorney--and as city Corporation Counsel for Mr. Koch.

Judge Scheindlin added, "I thought he was the right person, because of his career and background, to communicate with both sides--both the police and the community."

 Passed Up Legitimate Stops

In his first report in July 2015 to U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres, who assumed responsibility over the settlement that year, Mr. Zimroth stated that conversations with Police Officers and their supervisors indicated that cops weren't documenting all their stop-and-frisks. At the same time, he wrote, officers were sometimes failing to make stops where they were warranted.

"Among the reasons suggested are that officers are not confident or have been misinformed about, among other things, what they are authorized to do under the law, what supervisors expect of them, what their personal legal liability might be and under what circumstances discipline will be administered," he wrote, stating that NYPD commanders were in the process of rewriting the department's Patrol Guide to clarify the legal issues governing stops.

The changes being made, he said, would require adjustments in training for every uniformed officer, including supervisors, that emphasized that "officers may not use race as a motivating factor, even in part, for law-enforcement action, unless the action is based on a reliable and specific suspect description, A general suspect description, such as 'young, black male,' is not sufficient." 

The following March, he recommended that Judge Torres approve a new form for stop-and-frisks that required officers to describe the reason for stops in their own words, rather than just checking off pre-printed boxes. Those boxes drew criticism from Judge Scheindlin in her ruling against the city: she said officers over-used one stating "furtive movement" as justification without further explanation of that movement, as well as justifying stops by checking off "high-crime area" and "suspicious bulge."

Cited Cops' Concerns 

By November 2017, however, Mr. Zimroth said that two prime concerns as the department prepared to implement new training on using stops in a constitutional manner were that officers found the law confusing, and feared the department would not back them if a legitimate stop wound up spurring a civilian complaint against them.

He cited an Instructors' Guide finding that officers "express fear about doing stops, but the fear is not based on the inherent physical danger of conducting stops. Rather, the fear is based on a concern that if they do their jobs, they do stops, and people file complaints, the department won't have their backs. In other words, they are not afraid of doing their job, they are afraid of 'The Job.' "

To reassure officers on that score, Mr. Zimroth noted, the training on which he signed off contained a video from then-Police Commissioner James P. O'Neill stating that the overuse of stop-and-frisk—which peaked in 2011 under Mr. Bloomberg and then-Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly when 685,000 stops were conducted, overwhelmingly of young black and Latino men—had "led to widespread resentment and distrust of our department, especially in communities of color."

Mr. O'Neill had continued by telling officers, "To be clear, I'm not laying fault for this on you. You did what the leadership of this department asked, and the leadership bears responsibility for the consequences."

'Reasonable Suspicion'

Six months later, Mr. Zimroth released a 304-page report containing 14 recommendations meant to ensure that stops were conducted only in cases where officers had reasonable suspicion that those they were detaining had recently committed crimes or were about to do so—the legal standard for stops established by a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Based on the report, Judge Torres required that the NYPD furnish data on stops that had been conducted without satisfying that standard while also seeking information on cases resulting from stops that because of flaws in officers' actions led to them not being prosecuted; having evidence from those stops disallowed; instances where officers' testimony was deemed not credible by judges, and occasions when the city Law Department declined to represent officers or indemnify them against civil suits based on suspicions that they had acted improperly.

Her orders drew an angry reaction from PBA President Patrick J. Lynch, who stated, "Once again, the Court is leveraging its narrow authority over street stops and trespass enforcement to impose sweeping changes on the NYPD's operations and daily management. This most-recent order is completely unnecessary, because the Court and other police oversight entities have long since made their message to police officers clear: they want an end to proactive policing in New York City."

Mr. Zimroth was apparently unfazed by that criticism. Perhaps that was because his views about policing had been shaped by his public service working for two particularly strong champions of the NYPD, Mr. Morgenthau and Mr. Koch.

Had Knapp Commission Role

Mr. Zimroth, a Brooklyn native, not long after being graduated from Yale Law School in 1966 had gone to work for Mr. Morgenthau—who would later serve 35 years as Manhattan District Attorney—in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan. After leaving his job as a Federal prosecutor in 1970 to enter private practice, he represented Sgt. David Durk, who along with Frank Serpico became a pariah among his fellow officers for exposing top-to-bottom systemic corruption in the NYPD, during his testimony before the Knapp Commission.

In 1974, Mr. Zimroth published a book, "Perversions of Justice," regarding the Panther 21 trial several years earlier. The defendants, who were either members of the Black Panthers or connected to the group, had been acquitted of a series of crimes, including a plot to bomb several major city department stores.

He had frequently attended the trial while teaching at New York University Law School, and said in a 1987 interview with this newspaper, shortly after becoming Mr. Koch's Corporation Counsel, that he decided to write about the case because of his interest in the judicial system "and what happens when it is forced to deal with issues that are much larger than simple guilt or innocence."

He said he had concluded that the acquittals were granted largely because of an overreach by the prosecutors and "the process was abused. I thought that the evidence was very substantial in pointing to the guilt of some of the people who were charged, and their acquittal was caused because of what the prosecutor was trying to do in the case beyond guilt or innocence. You can't put a movement on trial."

He also said during that interview, "I'm not afraid to walk into a situation and shake it up if I think it's necessary."

Funeral services were held Nov. 9 at the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel in Manhattan.     

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(1) comment

JoelFrank

Why tell us a funeral was held?

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