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Robert M. Messner, a large man with a bullet-bare cranium, a daily change of red socks, and a steel plate over his desk that reads “Beware: Attack Lawyer!” wants young attorneys to think about becoming “eggheads” for the New York City Police Department. Department attorneys, that is. New York cop lingo of not so long ago reflected a certain disdain of counselors. But then was then, and now is now. These days, the brass hats at One Police Plaza routinely give due credit to the NYPD Legal Bureau — 40 civilian lawyers and 40 cops-cum-lawyers — for the city’s remarkable plunge in crime. Moreover, it has become quietly evident in police circles that commanders may enhance their career paths by embracing the Legal Bureau’s basic crime-fighting proposition: use the civil law in conjunction with criminal law — marry lawyers and cops, so to speak — and some seemingly intractable social ills stand a chance of being cured. Attorneys who can live with government green walls in place of corporate mahogany are thus encouraged to send their r�sum�s to the NYPD Legal Bureau. Courtroom action is as immediate and sure as tomorrow’s headlines. “For young lawyers today, there aren’t too many places where you can go to work and come out after a few years as a grizzled veteran,” said Messner, executive managing attorney for the bureau’s civil enforcement unit. “If you can handle it, we got work.” Captain Patrick Conry, head of the bureau’s quality assurance unit (“I’m not an attorney, just a plain old police captain”) claims the Legal Bureau has incubated nothing less than a “whole new specialty in law enforcement: the police lawyer.” The overall boss of the operation, Deputy Commissioner George A. Grasso, speaks of this new specialty in personal terms. An up-from-the-ranks policeman of 27 years, and a scholarship graduate of St. John’s University School of Law, he was appointed to the bureau’s top spot three years ago by former NYPD Commissioner Howard Safir. “For young lawyers who want to take their expertise and enhance their city, there is no better place to work,” said Grasso. “We undermine the criminal element. This happens here every day.” It was not always so. Certainly not in the days when Grasso was a rookie patrolman on a Merrick Boulevard foot post in the 105th Precinct of southeast Queens, his boyhood stamping grounds. “I saw the community go from vibrant to challenged,” he said. “We had a particular problem with smoke shops causing the deterioration, and the general sense of disorder. “As a young cop, I was always wanting to really do something about it. But the commander would look at me and say, ‘You can’t do anything,’” said Grasso. “There wasn’t any working plan for the cop on foot post to feel effective. I was reduced to standing in front of a smoke shop writing tickets for double-parking, or else writing up intelligence reports that got nowhere. “Now, we have a mechanism.” Here, Grasso speaks of the nuisance abatement and civil forfeiture laws Section 14-140 of the New York City Administrative Code; Article 38 of the Rules of the City of New York which allow police to padlock establishments that rack up multiple citations, and to seize evidence of street crime. Such evidence is customarily cars operated by drunkards, station wagons used by suburban johns cruising the city for streetwalkers, and vehicles operated by devotees of aggressively loud and non-melodious tunes. “Now, one of our attorneys can meet with the cop, and find the legal predicate to truly solve the issue,” said Grasso. “But it’s not like we just close [a nuisance establishment] down and that’s it. We take something that’s been a negative force in a community, and we turn it into a positive force. “Our lawyers talk to the landlords,” he said. “We show them their financial interest in being good citizens. We get something else put into that shop, some legitimate business the neighborhood needs, something that adds to the community rather than bringing it down.” STICKER SHOCK The encouragement to eager young lawyers offered by Grasso and Messner requires a caveat: forget about the brisk salary and year-end bonus typical of so many private firms. Starting pay at the Legal Bureau is about $40,000, with promotion opportunities that can bump the annual base to about $65,000. Money is not everything, according to Meira Mednick. She came to the bureau as a civilian lawyer two years after working for the trust and estate department of a private firm. “The hours were just terrible; I never saw my husband,” said Mednick, a graduate of the Brooklyn School of law. “There are days here [at the Legal Bureau] when I do work late, but that’s because I want to, as opposed to a boss breathing down my neck. “In the private sector, if you’re 30-odd years old, you would never get to conduct a trial,” she said. “You definitely would not get to pick a jury.” Last week, the very week of her 29th birthday, Mednick prevailed as lead attorney in a trial that challenged the police seizure of an automobile during a DWI arrest. It was the first time the question was decided by a jury — a jury she chose. The week before, she prevailed in a bench trial on the same issue. “You’re really encouraged to develop a litigation style here,” said Mednick. “You just don’t get that kind of experience in private practice.” Mohamed D. Quhshi joined the Legal Bureau as a civilian in 1996, his first job out of law school. Today, he serves Messner’s unit as a deputy managing attorney. Like Mednick, he takes the longer view on the benefits of lawyering for the NYPD. “If I was working for a large firm, they’d throw me in the back to do research all day,” said Quhshi, 35. At the Legal Bureau, on the other hand, Quhshi and his colleagues have shut down thousands of neighborhood irritants: brothels, stolen car chop shops, fencing operations, gambling parlors, and bodegas that front as drug markets. “Right away, I was able to litigate a number of cases,” said Quhshi. “These are cases relative to my background as an immigrant, working in bodegas in poor neighborhoods.” Quhshi left Yemen with his family in 1979. He grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and earned his law degree from the Albany School of Law. “I’ve gained a lot of good trial and motion experience, I’ve developed my negotiation skills, and I’m in contact with a lot of attorneys,” said Quhshi. “It’s all going to help down the road in my career.” There is a further non-monetary reward that comes in playing a critical role in an old story: the good guys versus the “bad guys,” as cops put it. “At the end of the day,” said Quhshi, “I go home feeling I’ve done something worthy.” To which Grasso would add, “The lawyers for once are the good guys in the story.” BUILDING A UNIT Messner’s civil enforcement unit is a recent addition to the Legal Bureau, which in one form or another is nearly as old as the police department itself. The other part of the bureau’s charge is to perform as in-house counsel for the NYPD. Assistant Commissioner Thomas P. Doepfner, a civilian lawyer, maintains daily contact with the city’s Law Department, and with Corporation Counsel Michael D. Hess. “A suit against the police department, or an individual officer, is essentially a suit against the city,” said Doepfner. “We’re responsible for retrieving all the documents necessary for the city’s defense, we notify witnesses, we prepare them for trial, and we arrange for expert testimony.” Doepfner joined the Legal Bureau in 1981 after briefly working as a private firm associate after graduation from Fordham University School of Law. “I never intended to make a career here,” said Doepfner. “But I found it fascinating from day one. Your cases are always in the media. Every day, it’s something new, something different.” Such as the day the department objected to a Ku Klux Klan petition to wear face-obscuring hoods during a rally in Police Plaza. The hoods, attached to the peaked hats, are presumably meant to protect the integrity of what Klansmen tout as the Invisible Empire. “I kind of casually remembered there was a state mask law,” Doepfner said. “I didn’t realize at the time that this would blow up into a big constitutional case.” The American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan filed a prior restraint suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, which found for the NYPD. On rally day, Klan lawyers pleaded for the KKK hoods in a petition to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, asking for a temporary restraining order to allow for a pre-rally appeal. “So there we were on a Saturday morning [in Police Plaza], waiting for Justice Ginsburg,” said Doepfner, “and not knowing which way she’d go.” The assembled Klanners were likewise anxious, all the more so because they were substantially outnumbered by anti-Klan demonstrators. When Ginsberg denied the TRO, the Klan members were obliged to lift their hoods and become a visible empire of six. (Cross motions for summary judgment were recently filed before U.S. District Court Judge Harold Baer in American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan v. Bernard B. Kerrick.) To be sure, attorneys for the Legal Bureau are zealous advocates for their clients: the NYPD, its officers and employees. But just as surely, the attorneys would insist, they try to bring a lawyerly measure of objectivity to the department’s daily operations. “You don’t always have to win for your client,” said Assistant Deputy Commissioner Deborah L. Zoland, one of the Legal Bureau’s top civilian executives. “You can make a settlement; you can make a policy change.” Early in her career, Zoland intended to become a schoolteacher. But a civilian job with the NYPD some years ago inspired her to go on to Brooklyn Law School. She returned to the department as a staff attorney, at a point when most of the Legal Bureau’s staffers were police officers. “Over time, we’ve developed trust [with police officers],” Zoland said. “Lawyers aren’t always popular, you know. But we have really helped to drive down crime. And now the police aren’t saying ‘Go away!’ Now they want lawyers working with them, side by side.” This is especially so at the moment, when law enforcement policies in New York do not lack for fierce criticism. Enforcement initiatives of the past several years have landed before state and federal courts at a rate that may be unprecedented in the city’s history. As noted in The New York Times on Dec. 14, 2000:
[T]he police department has suffered significant legal setbacks over the last two years in which its operations, policy and personnel decisions were reversed by judges or overhauled to reach court settlements …

Several lawsuits and investigations that could have significant impact on the department are pending. They include the continuing inquiry by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn seeking changes in how the department investigates and disciplines officers accused of brutality, and an inquiry by federal prosecutors in Manhattan that has concluded that members of the Street Crime Unit engaged in racial profiling.

“The department has 55,000 employees. There is going to be litigation. No one should draw conclusions from that, one way or another,” Grasso said. “We deal with it as best we can. Sometimes we go to trial, sometimes we settle. We work with the Law Department to make the best judgments we can. “Sometimes police officers are wrong. But sometimes it’s more complicated than these cases appear to be at first blush,” he added. Controversy — along with the low pay, the high-wire action in a very public arena, and the sink-or-swim litigation opportunities –comes with the territory of a particular kind of lawyer sought by the NYPD. “When you’re here at the Legal Bureau, you’re involved in all the major events of New York City,” as Captain Conry likes to say. “You’re on the pulse.”

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