Howard Safir

The Top Cop … On Legalizing Drugs

VTR Date: December 4, 1996

Guest: Safir, Howard


Guest: Howard Safir
Title: “The Top Cop …On Legalizing Drugs”
VTR: 12/4/96

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And today’s program is a function of my surprise, and, I’ll admit, my concern that quite so many distinguished Americans I respect and admire have in recent years proclaimed that the war on drugs is lost, and that, in defeat, we should just decriminalize or legalize drugs. Well, my own gut feeling is that the very last thing Americans need at the dawn of the 21st Century is what might so easily be taken as a further sanction for mindlessness and escape from reality. But even William F. Buckley, Jr., after prefacing his remarks on this program by saying that if he could turn a single latch which would make all drugs disappear from the face of the earth, he would, added, “My position on drugs is that the drug laws aren’t working, and that more net damage is being done by their continuation on the books than would be done by withdrawing them from the books.” That’s quite a statement. And I very much felt the need to bring to my Open Mind viewers its counterpoint in the person of a major American leader whose extensive experience and profound understanding in this problem area point him in a very different direction.

Howard Safir, New York’s top cop, was appointed Police Commissioner by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, capping a law enforcement career that began more than 30 years ago when Commissioner Safir was a special agent assigned to the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a forerunner of the Drug Enforcement Administration. And he went up the law enforcement ladder from there. And from that perspective, I would like him to address today the question of what to do about the drug epidemic in our country.

It’s a big order, Commissioner, buy you’re so well qualified. What should we do?

SAFIR: Well, I think there’s a number of things that we have to do. But first we have to take off the table this crazy idea of legalization. The way you couched it in your opening statement was very true. What these few prominent Americans have spoken about is surrender and is giving up. And I’m not willing to give up, and I don’t think this society is ready to say that mind altering drugs are a good thing and that we should just let people go ahead and use them. I think about the zombies that are walking around the streets of Amsterdam. I think about the hundreds of thousands of unborn babies that will be born addicted each year if drugs were legalized, who have no choice in whether or not they should go forward and use drugs.

So I think what we have to do is we have to look at what we can do to deal with this problem, and what we can do to deal with it in America.

HEFFNER: Do you have some sense that this de-legalization binge is growing, moving forward?
SAFIR: Well, I think the activists on the part of legalization are very active, and I think, unfortunately, there is no organization that is well organized and well funded on the other side. We just had these two laws that were passed in Arizona and California. In speaking to police chiefs in both those areas, and I asked them, “Why didn’t you vigorously oppose them publicly?” They said, “Well, we didn’t think they were going to pass.” Well, that’s apathy. What we really need to do is there needs to be organizations speaking from the other side. Because everybody assumes that most people think that drugs should be illegal. And while these very active legalization zealots go forward, it’s a very dangerous thing.

HEFFNER: Well, how do you deal with the notion that in Arizona and California they were really just talking about very sick people who just needed some relief from their pain, and that would you really oppose relief for people in pain?

SAFIR: Well, nobody would oppose relief for people in pain. But there are lots of pharmaceuticals that are available to deal with pain. There is nothing in marijuana or THC that is special that can’t be replicated by controlled, legitimately manufactured pharmaceuticals. And anybody who says that that’s not true is just putting out propaganda.

HEFFNER: Well, when Buckley was here at this table, and others have said the same thing, I mean, the headline of his story, that “The war is lost,” they talk about the incredible cost, the cost in your resources as Top Cop of the City of New York, in terms of the use of your men, the use of your dollars, and that it makes no sense, we ought to give up, you can’t beat this problem. You obviously think you can.

SAFIR: Oh, I think we can. And I think what we have to do is we have to change how we attack the drug problem in America.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

SAFIR: Well, we have to do more of what we’re doing here in New York. I recently met with General Barry McCaffrey, who is the nation’s drug czar. And he and I sat and talked about how America should deal with the drug traffic. And I looked at him and I said, very candidly, I said, “General, you are a general without an army. You have 120 or 200 people in the drug czar’s office. There are 2,500 DEA agents, 22,000 FBI agents. It’s not enough. What you need to do is provide resources and technical assistance to the people who have armies.” We have an army here in New York. We have 38,000 police officers. There are hundreds of thousands of police officers throughout state or local government in the United States. The view that we’re taking here in New York with the 2,000 additional investigators we’ve thrown into the drug war is we’re going to attack it from the street to the cartel. We’re going to deal with the infrastructure. We’re going to deal with the people who take suitcases full of cash to rent apartment buildings to people they know that are selling drugs. We’re going to go after the businesses that purport to be legitimate businesses that are, in fact, covers for drug trafficking. We’re going to go after the purchasers. And we’re going to use a uniformed presence on the street, investigators at the mid level, and senior investigators at the high level. And we are going to make this town so inhospitable for drug traffickers that they’re going to go elsewhere.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, you’ve been enormously successful. The police department has been enormously successful in New York in leading the nation, not in decriminalization, but bringing down the crime statistics. It’s not pie in the sky, then, in your estimation, to think that something as widespread as drug abuse is in this country can be controlled?

SAFIR: I don’t think it’s pie in the sky. In fact, we’re seeing it here in New York. But I think what we have to do is we have to do two things. One, drug trafficking is a business. People sell drugs to make money. That’s the only reason that they’re in the business. We need to make the environment so inhospitable in New York City for drug traffickers that they’re going to go to New Jersey and they’re going to go to Westchester, and they’re going to go to Nassau County. And that sounds kind of flippant. But the truth is that’s the way we’re going to deal with the drug traffic in America. Each state and local jurisdiction taking responsibility for their own area. I have to worry about the citizens of the City of New York. My pledge and my goal – and we’re going to do it – is we’re going to drive drug traffickers out of the city. And they’re going to go to other jurisdictions. If those jurisdictions take the same attitude, then pretty soon we’re going to start driving them out of the country. And that’s what we have to do.

Also, we have to change how we measure success in drug wars. The traditional measure has been you take large amounts of drugs, you stick them on tables with machine guns and with dollars, and you tell people how many people you’ve arrested, while drugs continue to come to the country. The reason that we control substances like marijuana, heroin and cocaine is because we believe that they cause antisocial behavior and crime. So the measure that we’re using here in New York City is not seizures or arrests; we’re using crime reduction. And, in fact, in the two areas where we’ve started our anti-drug efforts, Brooklyn north and northern Manhattan, we have doubled the crime reduction in the rest of the city. What I’ve told our commanders there is, “Don’t tell me about seizures or arrests; tell me about how you’ve reduced crime.”

HEFFNER: Now, what about the resources that this requires?

SAFIR: We can’t afford not to do this. And the fact is, when you look at the cost to the public, when you look at crime in general, it is my belief that 80 percent of the crime in America has a nexus to drugs. And you say: How do I know that? I know it intuitively after spending 30 years in the law enforcement business, specifically going after drug traffickers. But I also know it quantitatively from another area. We test people who come into central booking who are arrested for all crimes. On the average, it’s somewhere between 65 and, last time we tested, 81.2 percent of people arrested for all crimes have marijuana, cocaine or heroin in their system. So when people tell me that there’s no nexus between drugs and crimes, I say that’s nonsense.

HEFFNER: I’ve wondered, when Bill Buckley was here, and after all, there’s no more decently, respectably conservative human being than William F. Buckley, Jr., and he talked about the dollars and that we couldn’t afford it. I asked him whether he would have used that argument at the time of our involvement in Vietnam, or in Korea, or, you name it, that we can’t afford it, there’s a great price for fighting and winning a war. And, of course, he maintained that we were simply recognizing what the course was, and said we couldn’t win it. Do you think we can convince people who are so aware of the tax dollars that are going into this battle?

SAFIR: Well, I think we also have to look at the tax dollars that are going into health care. I think we have to look at the tax dollars that are spent on people who overdose, on long term care for people who are addicted, on long term rehabilitation for children who are born addicted. I think we have to look at the revenue lost from people who are unemployable or who have no interest in going to work because their minds are burned out from using drugs. And there is no sense from any place that I’ve seen that legalized drugs that anything but just the opposite happens. People don’t use less drugs when they’re legalized; people use more drugs. And people don’t become more productive; they become less productive.

HEFFNER: Well, you talked about zombies in Holland. And you touch on something that’s very important. Because people who don’t know very much about this in detail still will always refer to other countries and say, “Well, they legalized it. They made it easier. And they made it not a criminal act.” And you’re saying, as a consequence, there is greater use of drugs.

SAFIR: Oh, absolutely. The Swiss opened up parks in Zurich for use of heroin addicts, figuring that it would be much more humane, and there would be less crime if it was legal for heroin addicts to use heroin in a confined space. They eventually drove them all out of the city and banned it. It’s just not the panacea that people think that it is. And when you think about it, would we encourage people to use alcohol to excess? Would we suggest that anybody who wants to use a mind altering substance should sit in the park or sit in their apartments or get in the car and drive in these dangerous conditions? I think the idea of legalization is just what you began with: It’s giving up. And I certainly am not prepared to give up, and I think the majority of people in law enforcement, and I think the majority of people in this country, believe that the use of drugs is a negative thing and should not be legalized.

HEFFNER: Commissioner Safir, how do you deal with the argument that we tried all of this once with prohibition, only we were dealing with alcohol then, and we failed miserably, and as a result there was much greater crime, and indeed, much of the crime or some, at least, of the crime that we deal with today is a legacy of prohibition, that the kingpins at the time of prohibition, their descendants are still around today?

SAFIR: Oh, I don’t think they are the descendants. I think there’s a tremendous difference between alcohol and the ability to control alcohol and the ability to control addictive, mind altering drugs that encourage antisocial behavior. Sure, use of alcohol to excess sometimes can cause antisocial behavior. But we do know that there is absolutely a nexus between violence and cocaine and amphetamines. We do know that uncontrolled use of barbiturates and heroin cause overdose and death. We shouldn’t be looking to open Pandora ’s Box for more negative substances for our public.

HEFFNER: Are you at all involved, as Police Commissioner, with interdiction, preventing the damned stuff from coming in the first place?

SAFIR: Well, interdiction is a very difficult problem. I mean, it really is. When you think about our borders … And I have spent a lot of time. I’ve worked in Mexico, I’ve worked in Southeast Asia. I’ve flown, drove, and have walked the Southwest border where there are no fences and there are like miles and miles, hundreds of miles of open territory. Interdiction is just a stopgap measure. The problem is that most of the host countries that produce these drugs are not controlling the production. We ran an operation in Mexico in the ’70’s, the federal government did with the Mexican government, in which we sprayed poppies and we sprayed marijuana. That was very effective, because if you kill the plants on the ground, those are drugs that don’t arrive in America. That’s an effective way to deal with it. But the truth is we can’t control what foreign countries do. And, quite honestly, most of these source countries have been relatively ineffective in dealing with control of drugs. We have to deal with it here.

HEFFNER: Now, you’ve talked about getting after the people who benefit from, financially benefit from the trade. One of the criticisms that has been made is that the police frequently pick up the kids on the street who are straggling around with one or two marijuana cigarettes, and that the people who were the sellers, the pushers, are not apprehended.

SAFIR: Well, that’s not happening in this city anymore. We have zero tolerance on drugs in this city. And, sure, somebody can point to one incident on the street, and when we’re aware of it, we’ll deal with it. But dealers, users, mid level traffickers, high level traffickers are all fair game for us, and we’re going after all of them and will continue to. The fact is that we’re going to have to do this. I mean, drug traffickers have been in this city for a very long time. We’re going to have to do this street by street, block by block, building by building. And that’s what we’re doing in Washington Heights; it’s what we’re doing in northern Brooklyn, and it’s what we’re going to do throughout the city.

HEFFNER: What about the fear that some people express, then, that we’ll become involved in the creation of a police state?. When you talk about building by building, area by area, what do we have to be concerned about that?

SAFIR: We do have to be concerned about people’s rights. And that’s why, in each of our drug operations, we go in and we meet with hundreds of community leaders and community groups and tell them that we want to give these communities back to the people to whom they belong: the hardworking, honest citizens of each of these communities. And what we have found is tremendous community support: providing information, providing support, and providing the kind of environment, because they want their blocks back. I recently spoke to a block association up in Washington Heights, and they said, “We want our block back.” And we went in there and we cleaned up their street. And now these people are able to enjoy their homes, where before they were surrounded by drug traffickers.

HEFFNER: Commissioner, this program will be seen in Washington D.C. and Boston and Dallas and a number of other cities. What happens when Safir does this in New York? Are others, are you coordinating these efforts with others in other cities?

SAFIR: We do coordinate with other cities. One of the things that is making our efforts in northern Manhattan so successful is we have every federal agency involved, and not just in a liaison capacity; actually providing personnel to work with New York City police in this effort, so that we can take advantage of every law. We’re not just using the drug laws in Washington Heights; we’re going after phone clones; we’re going after credit card fraud; we’re going after counterfeiters. Policy. Because what we find is these are polycriminals. They’re not just involved in selling drugs; they’re involved in lots of crimes. And we’ll take them out any way that we can. So we’re coordinating with all the federal agencies. We have representatives of the New York State Police; we have representatives of the New Jersey State Police. That’s what has to be done: a coordinated enforcement effort.

One of the things that has always been an impediment to dealing with drug traffickers and many criminals is traffickers don’t particularly care whose jurisdiction they’re in or what geographical boundary they cross. Law enforcement always has. We have to blur those lines for law enforcement, and we have to have the same reach that criminals have. And I think we’re beginning to see that.

HEFFNER: Now, how do you get that? How do you get this same reach, given the fact that we are divided into 50 states and the District of Columbia?

SAFIR: You have to do it by coordinating through the federal law enforcement agencies and using their jurisdiction. You have to do it by regional agreements between adjoining jurisdictions, which we are in the process of doing. And you have to make sure that, when you send a police officer over to New Jersey, you don’t have to go through a bureaucratic morass; that it’s part of a task force, and they are ready to receive you and deal with whatever problem you need to deal with.

HEFFNER: Now, you’ve said before and you’ve said often, and quite eloquently, that we cannot afford not to do this. What is its cost?

SAFIR: Well, its cost is very high. I mean, the fact is we’re going to spend probably, in northern Manhattan, $8 million this year on the drug operation. But my view is we can’t afford not to do this, because the cost to society, the cost in human lives, the cost in quality of life is so high that this is a good investment for the city. You’re beginning to see happen here in New York something that’s not happening in a lot of the country. One, crime has gone down 16.1 percent in New York in 1995 while it went down nine percent in the rest of the country. We were actually 69 percent of the national reduction in crime last year, when we only account for three percent of the crime. And what that translates into is a safer city, a better quality of life, and that’s where you’re seeing hotels come back to New York, that’s where you’re seeing people moving back to New York, and, unfortunately for some, real estate prices going up. If you would have told somebody in 1990 or 1991 that Times Square was going to be a family entertainment center with Warner and Disney opening facilities there, they would have looked at you as if you were deranged or insane. Well, that’s exactly what’s happening in the city. And part of that is dealing not just with crime, but dealing with drugs.

HEFFNER: Now, realistically, what kind of help are you getting from the Drug Administration in Washington itself?

SAFIR: We’re getting good help from the DEA. We’re getting help from the drug czar’s office, from General McCaffrey.

HEFFNER: Dollars?

SAFIR: Dollars. But we need a lot more. The fact is, as I began with, what we really need to do to get the federal government to fund their army, we need to be in lockstep on this. They can set national policy, they can help us overseas, but the people who are going to deal with this problem in American are state and local law enforcements.

HEFFNER: Numbers. Not numbers of dollars, but numbers of men and women in blue. What are we talking about there? Vastly increasing the NYPD?

SAFIR: Not vastly increasing the PD. I think we’re at a little over 38,000. That’s a pretty good number. But it’s not the number of cops that you have; it’s what you do with them. And what we’re doing is we’re using them effectively. That’s why we’ve put about 2,000 dealing strictly with drugs. And that’s going to have an impact, and is having an impact, on the quality of life in the city.

HEFFNER: Now, when your department, when the cops deal with drugs, what about the DA’s and the courts? You’re not alone.

SAFIR: Of course not.

HEFFNER: Something has to happen after you do your thing.

SAFIR: That’s true. And when we started both of these operations, we sat down with the court administration, we sat down with the district attorneys, and we talked about just, and with the department of corrections, to talk about just how we were going to deal with the situation. Because you’re right, the front end of the criminal justice system cannot exist if the back end of the criminal justice system doesn’t do its job. And we made arrangements. And we are dealing with them. We are coping with the additional prisoners. And the courts are coping with the additional cases, and doing very well at it. Not as quick as we’d all like, but they’re doing very well. The important thing, however, is to make sure that once we incarcerate somebody, that he stays in jail. And that deals with the parole issue.

HEFFNER: What do you think about the parole issue?

SAFIR: Well, the parole issue, you know, my view is we ought to follow the lead of the federal government, and we ought to abolish parole. We ought to have truth in sentencing. If you commit a crime and the sentence is 10 years, you ought to do 10 years. Last year, 8,400 parolees, this year, in the first eight months of this year, 8,400 parolees committed 11,000 crimes in this city. Those are the crimes we know about. If you think about probably an X factor of four or five of the crimes they’ve committed that we don’t know about, we probably could have reduced crime another six or seven percent in this city just by keeping these parolees in jail.

HEFFNER: What chance is there that reform at that end of the criminal justice system can be accomplished?

SAFIR: Well, I think it’s been done in many other states.

HEFFNER: Is that true? I didn’t know that.

SAFIR: Yes. Yes, it’s been done in other states. Many states have the three strikes you’re out law, which we don’t have here in New York. Many states require second time offenders to do their full sentences. Some states have eliminated parole. And those kind of laws have been presented to our assembly. They’ve gotten through the Senate in Albany and have been stopped in the State Assembly.


SAFIR: Well, because there are a number of people, including Sheldon Silver, our Assembly leader, who don’t think these are good laws, who think that putting people back out on the street to commit additional crimes is probably not worth the kind of restrictive law that we’re talking about.

HEFFNER: Well, we’re dealing not with know nothings, one assumes. In this city and this state and this part of the world there may be political considerations; there are everywhere. What’s the argument against doing what you want to do?

SAFIR: Well, I think there’s an argument that, you know, people should be given the chance to be rehabilitated. People should, the cost of additional prison space might be too high. My view is that there are certain people who need to be warehoused, and that are threats to society, and those kind of people need to spend their time in jail. How many times have you heard me or the mayor speak this year about the murder that was committed by a parolee who was out a month or two months whose previous crimes were exactly the same as the crimes that he’s committed? I think it’s time for the pendulum to swing to the victim’s side rather than to the perpetrator’s side. And I think that’s what’s happening in most of the country, and we have to begin to see it here in this state.

HEFFNER: Commissioner Safir, I feel safer because you are where you are. And I appreciate your joining me today on The Open Mind. Thanks very much.

SAFIR: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $ in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”