Crime fighter focuses on capital

The Baltimore Sun

He stood in the shadows of one of the country's best-known politicians, dutifully chipping away at crime in New York City while largely steering credit to his boss.

Howard C. Safir, the grim-faced police commissioner under former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani whose exceptional crime-cutting record was stained by a series of police misconduct scandals, is resuming his role as loyal team player, this time, helping Annapolis' police chief attack crime.

Chosen by Mayor Ellen O. Moyer to advise interim Police Chief Michael A. Pristoop, Safir - a longtime Annapolis resident with more than three decades of law enforcement experience - is offering his expertise at a critical juncture for Annapolis. The city of 36,000 is fighting to tame a climbing homicide rate that has surpassed Baltimore's so far this year.

"Let's get one thing clear," said Safir, 66, his Bronx roots evident in his speech. "I'm not the police chief. I'm a citizen of Annapolis who has an interest. The mayor has selected someone who is going to be an outstanding police chief for Annapolis. As I told him, I will do as much or as little as he wants. I have a lot of experience, but I'm not the guy in charge."

Safir declined to have his photo taken for this article, saying he didn't want to upstage the new chief.

Pristoop, a former Baltimore police commander and most recently head of the state Department of General Services, and Safir, a strong advocate of using DNA to reduce crime backlogs, have discussed policing strategies and technological tools that largely mirror a new state-funded crime-fighting initiative in Annapolis. Among the plans being formed are installing closed-circuit surveillance cameras in high-crime areas and instituting more precise crime tracking methods."It would be shortsighted on my part not to take into serious consideration some of the things he has suggested," Pristoop said. "As far as I'm concerned, he's a valuable partner for me, and I respect his opinion."In a brief phone interview, Giuliani steadfastly supported Safir, whom he befriended decades ago when they worked in Washington. (Giuliani was a prosecutor; Safir was head of the U.S. Marshals Service.) Beyond a strong working relationship, the two men have confronted personal difficulties together, both receiving cancer diagnoses days apart about eight years ago. They have both recovered.

"Howard is just one of those people who is a naturally gifted leader and administrator," Giuliani said. "It could be a computer business, a banking business, and he would just lead it. ... I think he is very well-suited for this role. I know people think of him as being an executive who runs things, but he's been doing security consulting all over the world. You give advice, but you don't get to carry it out. That's a role he's very familiar with."

The city has done business with Safir before. His private risk-mitigation firm received a $42,500 contract in 2004 to conduct a management audit of the Annapolis Fire Department. SafirRosetti, formed by Safir after he retired from the New York City Police Department in 2000, is expected to have $40 million in revenue this year. But Safir said he is willing to offer advice pro bono to Pristoop.

Safir studied history and political science at Hofstra University on Long Island and began his law enforcement career in 1965 as a special agent in the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a precursor of the Drug Enforcement Administration.After retiring from the federal government, he took the reins of New York's Fire Department in 1994. Two years later, he was appointed police commissioner.

Though crime fell sharply while he was commissioner - homicides fell 44 percent and major crime 38 percent - his four-year tenure was marked by controversies including the shooting death of an unarmed black man, Amadou Diallo, who was killed by police in a hail of 41 bullets in the hallway of a Bronx apartment building, and the sodomizing of Abner Louima by officers in a police precinct.

Safir called the incidents "terrible tragedies" but says he led the department honorably.

"You have to work with the community," Safir said. "And it's not the loudest voice you have to work with; it's the good people in the community you have to work with."

Louis Matarazzo, president of the Patrolman's Benevolent Association of the City of New York, which cast a vote of no-confidence in his leadership, said crime was declining before Safir's tenure and that he could be "difficult" when dealing with pay and benefits, noting that officers went two years without a pay increase.

"Crime went down under him; that's all well and good," Matarazzo said. "But it had to do with the mayor. It was the mayor's policies."

Safir acknowledges making mistakes as police commissioner but proudly points to his successes.

"Could I have done it more articulately? Could I have done it in a softer manner? Could I have been more open at times?" Safir said. "Sure, anybody could. But I'm very proud of the fact that I reduced crime more than any other police commissioner, and, as a result, the city is better."

Daniel Oates, the police chief in Aurora, Colo., worked for Safir as the head of the intelligence division of the New York City police. He said he frequently calls on Safir to "bounce ideas off of him."

Oates recalled being a few years into his tenure as police chief in Ann Arbor, Mich., and being confronted with a backlog in DNA processing of rape kits at the state crime laboratory. He called Safir for advice.

"We solved a 20-something-year-old rape case," Oates said. "When my detectives went and told the rape victim, it was one of the most emotional things they could experience. ... It's an incredible windfall to have someone with his breadth of knowledge to be counselor to the police chief. I wish I had him out here."

Safir first came ashore in Annapolis in the late 1980s, when, during a boating trip with his family, he had maintenance trouble and spent the night.

"I walked up and down Main Street and said, 'I'm home,'" he said.

Safir and his wife of more than 40 years have long kept homes in New York City and in Annapolis' historic district, an area largely buffered from crime. "My house was built before the Revolution - that's wonderful," Safir said, flashing a rare smile. "To be able to preserve things like that, it's amazing. It's a long way from the Bronx."

Annapolis has recorded six homicides this year, putting the city on pace to surpass last year's record of eight and garnering the attention of state officials. Gov. Martin O'Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch unveiled this year a $500,000 initiative called Capital City Safe Streets, a multi-jurisdictional partnership.

Much of the city's crime is concentrated in its 10 federally owned public housing communities. Safir said it would make sense to concentrate police resources there.

"If you attack the drug trafficking and do it effectively, you reduce crime. That's my philosophy," Safir said. "You make the probability of arrest and incarceration high enough so that they'll go somewhere else."

He cautions that change will take time.

"It's going to take the chief a while to get his people in place, to get the technology in place, to get the crime reduction programs in place," he said. "And then, you know, a year from now would be a good time to evaluate it."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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