Wanted: Policemen

Posted: Aug 01, 2001 12:00 AM
Howard Safir was police commissioner of New York City up until a year ago, serving under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, an old friend and confederate. His reputation was that of an enormously resourceful manager. It hadn't mattered in the least, when Giuliani offered him the job, that he had never served in any police department (his career had been in the fire department and in drug enforcement). Things like that don't bother professionals; if you are omnicompetent, you can handle anything. And Safir did, presiding over a crime reduction at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country. He implemented the idea of specifying anti-criminal procedures with reference to local circumstances.

So why, the visitor asked, are we getting this front-page news that urban police jobs are unwanted and that recruiting is down drastically? His answer was characteristically unambiguous: "You've got to be brain dead if you don't know."

The brainy caller pleaded innocent, and Mr. Safir, now an executive with ChoicePoint, a corporate security firm, explained. Policemen, he said, do not feel that they are esteemed members of the community. What is the primary reason for this? Their treatment by the press, he said.

Obviously it isn't that entirely. The mood out there, particularly in the black community, is skeptical and not objective. Safir spoke of addressing a meeting of the Urban League three years ago. "They're African-American professionals, doctors, lawyers, accountants. One member got up and said that his advice to his son, if ever accosted by a policeman, was to raise his hands up on the nearest wall, lean forward, and let the policeman do whatever he wants to do." Safir found it astonishing that most of those attending the meeting nodded in agreement.

The problem of the urban black population and law enforcement has much to do with the nature and frequency of encounters with the police. "I spoke to one group of 300 black kids and asked how many had had an encounter with the police. About half of them raised their hands. I asked those with hands raised, How had that encounter been? Half of them were still sore. They walked away with a bad impression of the police."

Howard Safir emphasized as commissioner the need for police doing their duty to -- his word -- "apologize" when relevant. "Look, if there is a robbery and somebody is spotted, the witness says it was a young black guy, or a Hispanic, about 5 feet 10, you go out and talk to a lot of people in the area." Those who are picked up and later released should be apologized to, said Safir, who encouraged the practice. But making headway when the media want to complain about race profiling and when Al Sharpton is sitting there -- that's difficult. "Al Sharpton. Yes, I disagreed with my boss on that one. He just refused to talk to Sharpton. I'd have done it."

Would that have done any good?

"No. But he wouldn't have been able to go on saying that the New York City brass wouldn't talk to him."

Recruitment of police officers is down 50 percent and more. Efforts to recruit black policemen in New York City haven't raised the number on the force. Yes, wages are less than corresponding wages in the suburbs. And yes, in Los Angeles there are the scandals, and a reluctance of many senior officers to solicit or accept promotion, which is an invitation to head-on encounters with the media.

But mostly, says Safir, big-city police officers need to feel that the media are on their side. The story in that morning's New York Times ("City Police Work Losing Its Appeal and Its Veterans") told of an off-duty police chief in Seattle who, while jogging, spotted a woman in distress. He gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and, delivering her to the hospital, was given hepatitis B shots. The police-news event in the evening paper was of a pedestrian injured after a police car chase.

Well, off-duty policemen should be expected at the least to be good citizens, but if they want to live free of the emanations of Al Sharpton, they'll have to pack off, past Vieques, even.