Safir’s Mixed Legacy


Police Commissioner Howard Safir is getting diverse reviews in the Jewish community as his sometimes turbulent reign ends this week. The NYPD’s first Jewish top cop, who was to step down Friday, is being roundly credited for reducing crime overall and placing a high priority on investigating bias incidents. But many Jewish leaders are faulting his reaction to recent incidents of police violence against unarmed civilians, claiming he has not done enough to address tensions between the department and minority communities.

"It’s hard to say whether the measure of a police commissioner should be the lowering of criminal incidents or the rising of suspicion in the actions of the department," said Michael Nussbaum, president of the American Jewish Congress’ Metropolitan Region, which this spring hosted a forum on police-community relations. "You would hope the two would be going in the same direction."

Safir is taking a job with ChoicePoint, an Atlanta-based private security firm. He has said his recent diagnosis of prostate cancer played no role in his decision.

During his tenure, which began in April 1996, crime dropped 38 percent, while homicides fell 44 percent: the lowest rate in three decades, according to the Mayor"s Office. But despite what City Hall said is a 21 percent decline in civilian complaints during that period and a 41 percent drop in allegations of excessive force, several high-profile incidents involving three unarmed black men and one Jewish man have brought the department under national scrutiny.

Critics say Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Safir, in their zeal to slash crime rates, have allowed community relations to take a back seat.

Nussbaum said Safir and Giuliani succeeded in changing the culture within One Police Plaza, but the changes were not implemented at the precinct level.

"There is still a long way to go to re-establish in the minority community the confidence level that one would think the neighborhoods of the city should enjoy," he said.

Safir came under particular scrutiny in the Jewish community a year ago when police fatally shot a disturbed Borough Park man, Gideon Busch. Safir publicly insisted that Busch was attacking a sergeant with a hammer, but witnesses said he was not close enough to pose a danger to the four officers who killed him in a hail of 13 bullets.

"He has demonstrated that he is a callous and calculating man with no sympathy toward any families of people who have suffered at the hands of the police," said Glenn Busch, the victim’s brother, who is filing a civil suit against the department in response to the incident, which is under federal review.

Although a grand jury declined to bring charges against the officers involved, Borough Park leaders remain skeptical of the police account of the incident.

The grassroots activist group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which demonstrated alongside African-American protesters following the February 1998 shooting of an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, said it welcomed Safir’s resignation.

"We are disappointed that the city’s first Jewish police commissioner presided over these types of policies," said Andrew Stettner, president of JFREJ. "Commissioner Safir’s tenure has seen some of the worst cases of police brutality that have received international attention. The police have not made a consistent effort to [stop it] and have denied that there is a problem. We hope the mayor will appoint someone who will rectify the problem."

The New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, Howie Katz, praised Safir for elevating the department’s Bias Crime Unit to a task force and increasing its staff, as well as tapping the input of community leaders.

"He has done a very good job establishing an advisory board," said Katz, a member of that board. "He took a lot of our recommendations very seriously. But I think it’s unfortunate that also during his tenure, his sometimes reflexive response to criticism, especially surrounding some of the most serious incidents, really helped create a wall. So I think his will be a mixed legacy."

Safir is also getting mixed reviews from the organization representing some 2,000 Jewish police officers and employees of the NYPD. On the plus side, Safir’s appointment sent morale in the Shomrim Society to a new high.

"He did espouse his Jewishness and said he was proud," said Gene Stevens, the society’s president. Stevens, a community affairs officer at the Brooklyn South division, said Safir was a Shomrim member who paid his $20 annual dues and regularly attended major events such as breakfasts and an annual oneg Shabbat.

But a previous president of Shomrim, Sgt. Eric Finkelstein, said it took more than eight months to get a response from Safir to a 1998 letter expressing concern about alleged anti-Semitic incidents on the force. After two articles on the subject appeared in The Jewish Week, Safir, claiming he never received the letter, met with Finkelstein to discuss the incidents.

"We would have liked to have the kind of relationship that helped us build the organization, but unfortunately we weren’t able to do that," said Finkelstein, a member of the Bronx vice squad.

Safir told The Jewish Week Wednesday that he was proud to have helped shatter any myths that law enforcement is not a Jewish endeavor. He said his religion was never an issue on the job.

"There is a long history of Jews within the department, just not as police commissioner," he said. "I still often get asked the question, how did a nice Jewish boy like you become a cop? I answer that I followed in the footsteps of my uncle, the first great Jewish detective in the NYPD, Louis Weiner. He’s always been a role model for me. I can’t think of a more honorable profession."

Noting that his resignation came on the same day Jewish Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut was tapped as the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Safir said: "The American public has gotten much more sophisticated and tolerant and looks at a person’s qualifications, not his religion."

The NYPD’s Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Alvin Kass, said Safir was "one of the greatest commissioners in the history of New York. I’ve seen him go out of his way to try to resolve the most difficult and trying problems that involve intergroup relations."

Citing the pending retirement of another high-ranking Jewish official from the department, chief of personnel Michael Markman, Rabbi Kass said both ìhighlight the important role that Jews have played in the department and the necessity of aggressive recruitment efforts to try to bring more Jews into the department."