Why Howard Safir must go

Rudy Giuliani's police commissioner has offered nothing but knee-jerk support for police officers who have killed three unarmed black men in 13 months. He should resign.

Published March 22, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

To Mayor Rudy Giuliani's most obsessive critics, the latest shooting by New York police of an unarmed black man is news almost too good to be true.

The killing of Patrick Dorismond by an undercover cop -- the third unjustified police homicide of a black man in 13 months -- is all the "proof" they need that the city's much-vaunted reduction of crime rates depended on brutally repressive, racist policing.

It's not true. But this latest police killing is indeed a tragedy, one that's been handled with stunning ineptitude by Police Commissioner Howard Safir. And that's why it's time for Safir to resign.

If he doesn't, Giuliani should replace Safir just as President Truman replaced Gen. George Patton in 1945. It's poor management, rather than a flawed policing philosophy, that's at the root of the police department's series of disasters: Crucial parts of the department have remained psychologically and tactically on a war footing even though the war is over. Both the police and their critics have a dangerous tendency to forget that New York is not the city it once was.

The combination of sophisticated computer analysis of local crime patterns, enforcement of "broken window" quality-of-life laws and aggressive drug and gun enforcement initiated by former Commissioner William Bratton worked wonders in the New York that he and Giuliani inherited from David Dinkins. But the NYPD is a big and cumbersome human machine that must be operated at precisely the right intensity if its functioning isn't to erode public trust or worse, to actively undermine public safety.

The person whose delicate job it is to calibrate and control the machine must be someone who understands the peculiar culture of the police department -- a culture molded by class and ethnic identity mixed with the effects of life on the street -- without becoming so absorbed in the institution that he loses sight of the public interest.

Safir has failed in this regard. He has consistently struck the wrong tone by coming to the immediate defense of officers involved in controversial incidents (often in ways that are reprehensible) -- as when he revealed the juvenile arrest record of Dorismond, a move made with Giuliani's approval. But despite his knee-jerk defense of officers, he has never been popular among the rank and file.

At the same time, he shows no sign of understanding, as Bratton did, that certain effective police tactics can only be used with extreme delicacy. Bratton's street crime unit was a small and genuinely elite force. It was composed of officers who had enough street smarts to tell if a man was carrying a gun just by the way he walked and who had sufficient experience to know how to defuse a volatile situation without the use of deadly force.

Safir, desperate to maintain a sharp drop in crime statistics, expanded the SCU to three times its original size. And the second, considerably less elite manifestation of the unit was involved in a series of problematic incidents before it was effectively disbanded in the wake of the Amadou Diallo shooting.

Safir's Robert McNamara-like obsession with law-enforcement statistics has certainly percolated downward, with disastrous results, if the early reports about "Operation Condor" turn out to be true. Condor is the problematic anti-drug effort that prompted a cop disguised as a lowlife to approach Mr. Dorismond in Midtown and ask him where he could buy drugs, prompting a fight that led to the man's death.

It's also telling that Safir has acknowledged, correctly, that the habitual rudeness and disrespect that characterizes so many police encounters with the public alienates working-class and minority communities that might otherwise favor aggressive law enforcement. Safir consistently cites his laughable "CPR" (standing for courtesy, professionalism and respect) program as a great reform. But he has completely failed to convince enough of the 40,000 men and women under his command that bullying and discourtesy together undermine their effectiveness.

Even if the apparent rash of atrocities by New York's Finest were all merely a matter of bad luck and bad timing -- rather than symptoms manifested by an institution that has failed to adjust to its own success -- it would be reason enough for Safir to go. (Napoleon famously demanded that his generals above all be lucky -- and Safir is not only tone deaf and nasty when it comes to dealing with the public and the press, he's also unlucky.)

The mayor has to realize that the longer his tin-eared commissioner stays at the helm of the nation's largest police department, the more we will see policing strategies that are, on the whole, sensible and tolerable, falling into disrepute, imperiling public safety in the future.

But Giuliani's absolutist notion of loyalty will probably ensure that Safir stays in office -- even if it means crippling his own bid for a Senate seat. Just as Giuliani has excommunicated close friends who expressed the slightest criticism of his administration, so he has stayed faithful to those like Safir whose fidelity is unwavering and unquestioning.

By Jonathan Foreman

Jonathan Foreman is a staff writer for the New York Post.

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Crime Public Safety Rudy Giuliani