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Stonewall on subway stats

January 9, 1998

Police Commissioner Howard Safir's bombshell announcement that subway crime has been underreported for decades came the day before he'd promised to release the same information to the Daily News.

"It was the latest day they'd promised," said News counsel Eve Burton, referring to what she said was an agreement that police would release transit-crime statistics the paper sought under the freedom of information law. "They'd missed four or five other dates, beginning in early October."

The promises were made, Burton said, by people from the city corporation counsel's office, by senior mayoral adviser Anthony Coles and Police Department spokeswoman Marilyn Mode. Neither Coles nor Mode returned phone calls yesterday.

The News had requested statistics about subway crime after Deputy Transit Insp. Vincent DeMarino was transferred last October for allegedly failing to properly report subway crime.

Instead, on Wednesday Safir announced that a preliminary internal audit begun in August revealed that transit crime had been underreported by an estimated 20 percent since as early as 1967, and that the problem had continued after the transit police force was merged with the Police Department in 1995.

Safir also announced that three weeks earlier, DeMarino had been brought up on departmental charges. In addition, the commissioner gave less than a resounding endorsement to the Transit Bureau's former chief, Michael Scagnelli, who was transferred out last month.

The department's stonewalling of the News' request - and its attempt to put its own spin on the audit - is typical of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's approach to releasing crime data. He refused to let State Comptroller H. Carl McCall audit city crime statistics, insisting McCall wanted to hurt him politically.

McCall said yesterday that New Yorkers cannot accept subway crime numbers until an independent audit is done.

Even the City Council, which sets the Police Department budget along with the mayor, is unable to get key information.

"We've been given the run-around by the police commissioner," Councilman Sheldon Leffler (D-Hollis), chairman of the Council's Public Safety Committee, said yesterday. "For months we have been asking for complaints and arrest reports, but we haven't gotten any."

Leffler said he specifically raised the issue of rising subway crime in a Dec. 1 Public Safety Committee hearing. (After dropping steadily since 1990, subway crime began to rise last year.)

"Safir's response then was one of no concern and that it was temporary and would be relieved by assigning more officers," Leffler said.

"He Safir made no statement about the audit. He made no statement about the preliminary findings," Leffler said.

"That this problem went on for 30 years is stupefying. It defies belief. It also calls into question not just these statistics but statistics generally of the NYPD."

Giuliani has made the reduction of crime the cornerstone of his administration. Safir said the underreporting of transit crime will not affect those overall statistics.

Safir's audit, said Leffler, "also raises the point that the department is so statistics-driven - that it is the major single driving force in the NYPD - and they control it completely. There is no other organizational check on these statistics."

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© 1998 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.