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Howard Safir: He Still Gets No Respect

December 10, 2007

“David!” the handwritten letter [pictured at the bottom of this page] begins.

“I have called you four times and you have not returned my calls. There was never a time when I was P.C. that I did not return the calls you made to me, nor did I ever fail to help you. Friends do not treat friends this way. Time for a reality check. Your [sic] not that important! I would not call you if I did not have something you would find of interest.”

The letter was signed “Howard,” who is, of course, Howard Safir, police commissioner from 1996 to 2000 under Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

“David” is David Cohen, Deputy Commissioner of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division since 2002, appointed by the current police commissioner, Ray Kelly, to fight terrorism.

Safir’s letter was postmarked Aug. 25, 2006, and addressed to Cohen’s Brooklyn office. [We’ll omit the location so as not to be accused of compromising “security.”] It appears to have been written on Safir’s police department stationary with the word “Ret” [for retired] added after his name.

His anger and distress [note the number of underlinings throughout the letter] provide a glimpse into the personalities at the highest levels of the NYPD, where personal interests often dictate — and undermine — official policy. Especially under Kelly, even the non-response of a letter can be very personal.

Let’s begin with Safir, who [except with his family] is one of New York City’s most unpleasant men. While police commissioner in 1999, he ridiculed his predecessor Bill Bratton as “some airport cop from Boston,” noting that he himself had tracked down the Asian drug lord the Khun Sa.

Bratton retorted by pointing out that so far as he knew the Khun Sa had never been captured and called Safir “the Rodney Dangerfield of law enforcement.”

Judging from his letter to Cohen, he still isn’t getting any respect.

But there may be more to it. Nothing goes on at the NYPD at that level without Kelly’s imprimatur. Kelly and Safir do not get along, and Cohen knows this. Opportunist that he is, why would Cohen risk angering Kelly by answering Safir’s letter?

There was a time when Kelly and Safir did get along. Kelly attended Safir’s inaugural at City Hall. Safir attended Kelly’s as Assistant Treasury Secretary in Washington under President Bill Clinton.

But for reasons not clear to Your Humble Servant, their relationship soured. Some say this stemmed from Kelly’s request to Safir for the NYPD’s Harbor Unit to escort some visiting dignitaries. Safir refused, saying Kelly should use his own agency’s boats. Just as Cohen feared Kelly, Safir feared Giuliani who, when he became mayor in 1993, had fired Kelly. Opportunist that he is, why would Safir risk angering Giuliani by doing a favor for Kelly?

When Kelly returned as police commissioner in 2002, Safir made an appointment to see him for lunch. When he called to confirm it, Kelly’s staff told him the request would have to be made in writing. Friends of Safir say he and Kelly never had the lunch.

In Safir’s 2003 book “Security” [perhaps the worst book ever written], Safir criticized Kelly for disbanding the Street Crime Unit, which he had expanded in 1997. Of his many horrible decisions as commissioner, this was probably Safir’s worst. Two years later, the new recruits’ lack of training led a group of them to shoot an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, an incredible 41 times.

In his book, Safir never acknowledges the mistake of his over-expansion. After noting that Kelly disbanded the unit in 2002, Safir writes: “It cannot be a coincidence that, in the first four months of 2002, there has been a 22 per cent surge in shootings and, without SCU policing the streets, we have seen more guns on the streets being used in target-of-opportunity shootings, and innocent bystanders, even children, are once again being caught in the cross-fire.”

Now let’s turn to Cohen, a former CIA operative, who headed the agency’s New York City office when Safir was commissioner. The sentence [“There was never a time when I was P.C. that I did not return the calls you made to me, nor did I ever fail to help you.”] is an apparent reference to that period of time.

Sources say that Cohen has also turned his back on other top former NYPD officials, who aided him at that time. What better way to describe Cohen’s fair-weather behavior than Safir’s plaintive cry: “Friends do not treat friends this way.”

Now let’s discuss Kelly, who, like Cohen, has turned his back on former friends. Not just NYPD colleagues, but those in other law enforcement agencies. Remember Kelly standing shoulder to shoulder on national television with the head of the FBI’s New York City office, Jim Fox, after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing? Contrast that with Kelly’s continual public disdain of the FBI since returning as commissioner in 2002.

Cohen is equally disdainful, which may have been a reason Kelly selected him to head the Intelligence Division. Cohen has brought his own CIA animus towards the Bureau, which may have fueled Kelly’s.

When Bratton, who now heads the LAPD, came through town, Kelly — who has never forgiven him for taking his job and leading the city to historic crime reductions — refused to take Bratton’s calls. NYPD insiders say Kelly resents Bratton’s crime-fighting successes.

Despite Kelly’s emphasis on fighting terrorism, he so dislikes Bratton that, a year ago, he pulled out of a 9/11 anniversary conference on terrorism when he learned Bratton was attending. He then held a rival terrorism conference at Police Plaza the same day.

Finally, there’s the matter of Giuliani, whom Kelly has also not forgiven for firing him. Cohen’s refusal to respond to Safir may reflect Kelly’s resentment of Giuliani — for whom Safir serves as a “First Responder” [whatever that is] in his presidential campaign.

Remember, it was Kelly who initiated the critical McKinsey report on the NYPD’s leadership response to 9/11. Mayor Bloomberg deep-sixed the report and Kelly hasn’t spoken of it since.

A year or so ago Kelly was quoted in journalist Wayne Barrett’s book “Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11” as questioning the leadership of his predecessor, the now discredited Bernard Kerik, during 9/11. “I don’t know who was directing. I literally don’t,” Kelly said to Barrett.

Kelly was forced to eat some crow when Kerik responded: “Perhaps he can talk to his Chief of Department, who was my Chief of Department on that day. I am sure Joe Esposito will clarify things for him.”

Safir and Cohen did not respond to calls about the letter, so it is unclear if Cohen ever got around to answering poor Howard.

That leaves an unanswered question: what if what Safir wanted to tell Cohen was terror-related?

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Handwritten note from Howard Safir to David Cohen, sent in an envelope postmarked Aug. 25, 2006.

Copyright © 2007 Leonard Levitt