Soul Brother No. 911

It was Christmastime in 1996 – long before the Louima-Diallo-Dorismond troika foiled any chances of Howard Safir’s outshining Bill Bratton’s legacy – and Dennis Walcott, the president of the New York Urban League, had invited the new police commissioner to speak at his group’s annual board-of-directors meeting at the Sheraton. Safir accepted immediately, and, after a perfunctory holding-forth on the department’s astonishing crime crackdown, took a few questions from the audience. “One of my upper-middle-income African-American board members stood up,” Walcott remembers, “and said that he’d instructed his son that if he’s stopped by the police at night, he should do two things: turn on the lights inside the car, and put his hands above the steering wheel. He asked the commissioner what he thought of this.”

In his clipped Jack Webb cadences, Safir told his questioner that he’d be suspicious of the boy – he’d automatically think he was up to something. “That really created a firestorm,” Walcott says. “The black board members were saying that this was a survival instinct.” Safir was curious enough about the reaction to survey some of his own officers. “The white officers said what he said, and the black officers said what the black board member said,” Walcott recalls. After that, Safir asked Walcott to help launch his Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect campaign. But policies about searching suspects never really changed, and relations between blacks and the police never really improved.

This is the paradox of Howard Safir’s four years at One Police Plaza: As much rage and suspicion as the department endured from people of color, this commissioner has spent far more personal time with black leaders than Rudy Giuliani has – probably more than anyone in Rudy’s administration. But it never turned out to be quality time. With each crisis, Safir’s posse, the three leaders he has said he was closest to – Walcott; Sidique Wai, president of the United African Congress, who was in Safir’s office an hour after he heard Amadou Diallo had been killed; and core national chairman Roy Innis, who has made a name out of being a black friend of Republicans – became a sort of cultural buffer for Safir, a way of connecting with some black people without having to deal with all black people. When Safir proudly mentioned those three leaders at a post-Diallo City Council hearing, councilmember Annette Robinson cried out, “That’s an insult!” She says now of Safir’s presumed connection to the black community, “He didn’t have a clue.”

Walcott’s relationship with Safir was cordial if distanced – “I hear,” Walcott offers, “that he’s a very warm guy” – but a pattern emerged: In community meetings, Safir would push statistics showing that New York is the most restrained police force in the nation, and blacks would reply that it wasn’t what the police were doing but how they were doing it. After Diallo was shot, Safir said, “Reasonable people need to spend a lot of time making sure that the community understands that this police force is there to serve them.” In other words, this was a P.R. problem: The community had to be not listened to but convinced.

Sidique Wai, for his part, is still devoted to Safir. “He tried to establish a relationship with communities,” he maintains. “I didn’t even know what police work was, and I learned about it, to his credit.” Innis, however, caught on to the friendship’s limitations. “He seemed sincere,” says his son and spokesman, Niger, “but if there was a weakness, it was his failure to reach out to leaders like us before a crisis happened.” As other black leaders stepped up the pressure, Safir huddled with his posse in public and private. “He and I once had a major disagreement, and we had it out behind closed doors,” Walcott says. “From that time on, I had a different point of view on him. I felt that was respectful, even if we still disagreed.”

Why did this side of Safir never make it to prime time? “Was his own persona somewhat hidden by the mayor’s persona? Most likely,” Walcott muses. “But part of the challenge, if you see that your message is not sticking, is to decide how to get your message to stick.” In the end, courtesy, professionalism, and respect may have got Howard Safir only so far.

Soul Brother No. 911