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New media still old media foe

March 24, 1997

A couple of weeks ahead of schedule following his heart-bypass surgery, a kinder, more philosophical Howard Safir has returned to One Police Plaza.

Presiding over a promotion ceremony of sergeants and captains on Friday, Safir seemed more mellow than he'd been since becoming commissioner a year ago. "When someone is mucking in your heart," he explained, "you get a new perspective."

His new perspective, however, does not extend to at least one old bugaboo: the media. Asked about last week's arrest of a New York Times reporter while covering the funeral procession of rapper Biggie Smalls, Safir, who upon becoming commissioner allowed he never believed anything he read in the newspapers, said, "Having a press pass does not entitle you to cause disruption. It does not entitle you to disobey the orders of police officers . . . "

Times Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld wrote Safir last week, pointing out that a television video belied the police's claim that the reporter, Julia Campbell, had incited an unruly crowd, shoved a lieutenant and cursed a captain (which, when last checked, is not a crime). Safir maintained the police had acted appropriately.

Except for The New York Post, which described Campbell as a "one-woman civilian complaint review board" and whose editorial board appears to be an adjunct of the NYPD's Public Information Office, Safir seems as contentious as ever in battling the city's newspapers.

The issue is not merely the behavior or detention of reporters but his refusal to release what in the past has been considered public information.

Take the release of his cell-phone records while fire commissioner after 10 months of stonewalling the Daily News, which is seeking to discover whether he'd used his taxpayer-funded phone for other than city business. What Safir released were 200 blank pages with the telephone numbers of his 5,000 calls all redacted.

Then there's Safir's still unexplained absence following last month's shooting at the Empire State Building, an absence reminiscent of former mayor David N. Dinkins' police commissioner Lee (Out of Town) Brown. Although Safir maintains he was "in the area" the night a gunman killed one and wounded seven in an incident with citywide, if not international, repercussions, he has refused to explain why it took him 3 1/2 hours to reach the crime scene.

Safir's reluctance to divulge information under a mayor who's political cornerstone has become the city's falling crime rate is perhaps best explained by Jacob Riis, New York's most famous turn-of-the-century police reporter, whose depiction of the department resonates today.

Printable versionIn his memoirs, "The Making of An American," Riis describes the job of police reporter: "He has an office . . . across from Police headquarters where he receives the first intimations of trouble through precinct reports. Or else he does not receive it. The police do not like to tell the public of a robbery or a safe cracking,' for instance. They claim that it interferes with the ends of justice. What they really mean is that it brings ridicule or censure upon them to have the public know that they do not catch every thief, or even most of them. They would like that impression to go out for police work is largely a game of bluff." * * *

No Rest for Intelligence. Meanwhile, Safir and his city-hall soulmate, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who's as unforthcoming with information as our polce commissioner, might care to explain why 10 of last quarter's top 50 NYPD overtime earners are assigned to the department's Division, City Hall and Gracie Mansion.

Numbers one and two on the list: Dets. J. Conway, a 23-year veteran who earned $9,336 in overtime, and F. Krasnov, who earned nearly $8,879. Number six: Lieu. C. Mathis, who earned $7,712. Number 13: Sgt. J. Negus, $7,082.

Safir's spokeswoman Marilyn Mode initially called the overtime "an indication of how very hard the mayor works."

Further study led to her emendation that, despite the designation, "City Hall, Gracie Mansion," those detectives were assigned neither to a mayoral or city-hall detail but to the Intelligence Division. Mode said she did not know what their jobs entailed.

Taxpayers can thus rest assured that none of these Big Ten earned their overtime escorting Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro's wife, who not too long ago was given a police escort to Kennedy Airport so she could make a plane to Los Angeles.

Nor have they been spending their long hours with the mayor's wife, Donna Hanover, who's rumored to have moved out and then returned to Gracie Mansion.

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Email Leonard Levitt at llevitt@nypdconfidential.com

© 1997 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.