Where was the commissioner?
March 3, 1997
The greatest mystery after why Ali Hassan Abu Kamal shot seven people at the Empire State Building is where Police Commissioner Howard Safir was between the time of the shooting - about 5:15 p.m. - and his appearence at 8 p.m. at Bellevue, the hospital where some victims were brought.
The near three-hour window on the evening of Sunday, Feb. 23, is no doubt less interesting than William Bratton's absence in the Hamptons during the 1991 subway crash in which five people died or Benjamin Ward's three day blow during the 1984 Palm Sunday massacre when the department couldn't locate its errant commissioner.
But for reasons that aren't clear, Safir and his spokeswoman Marilyn Mode have refused to explain his whereabouts or why it took him three and one-half hours to respond to the crime scene of an internationally-charged shooting spree. Safir finally arrived at the Empire State Building at 8:25 p.m., after leaving Bellevue.
Perhaps his absence explains why he seeemd adrift during much of the police investigation into Abu Kamal's background. Safir did appear at Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's City Hall news conference that Sunday night at 11 p.m. but he stood mute and dour while Giuliani played his favorite role: Police Commissioner, Chief of Detectives and lead investigator, all in one.
Since forcing Bratton's resignation a year ago, Giuliani has melded the police department into an extension of himself. With this case, he has melded the department's investigation into his political agenda.
"The mayor made a decison to selectively release issues . . . to maintain calm in the city," as David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council put it. A second motive was to score points with Jewish groups like the JCRC, a pillar of Giuliani's electoral support, by secretly informing them of the gunman's true motivation.
While the mayor and Safir confided to Jewish groups that the city would beef up security for them because the Palestinian gunman harbored anti-Israel motives, he and Safir told the public another story. On Monday the pliant Safir stood at the mayor's side and served as ventriloquist's dummy, describing Abu Kamal as "distraught over a number of financial reverses in which he felt he had been cheated out of his life savings." The next day he acknowledged this was untrue.
Safir's misrepresentation did not approach that of former Chief of Detectives Joseph Borrelli, who called El Sayid Nosair "the lone gunman" who killed Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane's murder is now believed to have been the first act in a conspriacy that culminated with the World Trade Center bombing.
Unlike Nosair, Abu Kamal appears to have acted alone. Unlike Borrelli, who didn't know any better, the day before Safir spoke he'd been alerted to a letter found on Abu Kamal, which read: "Zionism is the paw that carried out their savage aggression. . .I have decided to strike at their own den in New York and at the very Empire State Building in particular."
On Friday, a police officer from Mode's Public Information Office informed reporters at One Police Plaza that Safir would answer questions about the shooting, following a promotion ceremony in the first-floor auditorium. When reporters from Newsday, The New York Times and The Associated Press arrived, Mode asked what questions they wished to ask Safir. This reporter said he wanted to know where Safir had been for that three-hour window and why he had told a different story in private to the Jewish groups than he had to the general public.
Safir and Mode then left the auditorium without any explanation.
The Wild Geese Return. Ex-Commissioner Bratton, First Deputy John Timoney and Deputy Commissioner for Public Information John Miller defied some Irish history by returning to Police Plaza last week after having been driven out by Mayor Giuliani nearly a year ago. Bratton was sacked because of Giuliani's jealousy, Miller because he provided Bratton with too much favorable publicity. Timoney quit after Giuliani passed him over for Safir. He then called Safir a "lightweight," prompting Giuliani to attempt to bust him back to captain to reduce his pension.
The occasion of their return was the annual dinner of the Police Foundation, the city's most legitimate police-related nonprofit organization. Displaying a graciousness not associated with the current admnistration, Safir in his welcoming remarks recognized both Bratton and Timoney.
As for those wild geese, they are named for the Irish patriots driven out of their country during British rule after the battle of Limerick in 1691 and forced to wander as mercenary soldiers through Europe, never to return.
Email Leonard Levitt at email@example.com
© 1997 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.