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Substation’s conflagration

February 23, 1998

Police Commissioner Howard Safir's controversial arrangement establishing a Wall Street police substation in return for a new Police Museum headed by his wife may not be legal under the city charter, says Councilman Sheldon Leffler (D-Hollis).

"I want to know on what authority the police commissioner was able to enter into this agreement," said Leffler, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee. "Where in the city charter does Safir get the authority to enter into the deal?"

Mayoral spokeswoman Colleen Roche declined to comment.

Leffler said that last year, for instance, City Hall vetoed an agreement Fire Commissioner Tom Von Essen was about to sign with the City Council on the reporting of statistics involving response time, maintaining that Von Essen did not have the authority to do so.

"We spent months, nearly a whole year, working on a memorandum of understanding with the Fire Department over the release of the figures," Leffler said. "We were assured this was a done deal. The mayor then vetoed it, telling us the fire commissioner doesn't have the authority under the city charter to sign the agreement on his own."

Last week, this column reported that Safir had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Alliance for Downtown New York, a business group with Wall Street interests. The memorandum promised a $5-million, 200-officer police substation near Wall Street paid for by the alliance. In return, the alliance promised to pay for a relocated Police Musesum headed by Safir's wife.

On Thursday, after three days of nonstop criticism, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani termed Safir's deal a "mistake." Giuliani's lawyers then added a sentence to the department's original memorandum, denying that the two projects were related. "Space for the museum is not contingent upon space for the police substation," the sentence read.

Leffler said he believes that the mayoral addendum resulted from fears that Safir's memorandum - approved by the Police Department's attorneys - could be legally challenged by residents and businesspeople in the Brooklyn and midtown Manhattan neighborhoods that would lose officers to the new substation. "This is a one-sentence tack-on to an eight-page document," Leffler said. "Does a one-sentence tack-on really change the substance of this proposal? We have asked the council's legal staff to examine whether the proposal is legally defensible."

Leffler, who has professed fears that Safir's deal could set a precedent by diverting police and other services from areas unable to pay for them, was rebuked by Safir last week for his criticisms. After terming this reporter a "liar," Safir said, "Shelly Leffler, as usual, just like Len Levitt, has his facts wrong." Safir then accused both of "implying my wife did something wrong."

Leffler said yesterday that Safir had "misconstrued" his remarks. "No one has said his wife, the nonpaid chairwoman of the museum's foundation, did anything wrong. What Safir doesn't understand is that even if you do things for a good reason, people will try to snooker you. The police commissioner should be careful before signing agreements that can get him into trouble. He needlessly looked like he was being duped by the alliance .

"My criticism of the deal," Leffler explained, "is not meant to say his wife is being unethical. It is not his wife who was snookered. She is not a lawyer. Rather, it is that Safir should not allow himself and his wife to be put in a potential conflict-of-interest situation.

"The conflict is this: The commissioner is supposed to represent the welfare of residents and businessmen throughout the city. But Mrs. Safir is working with a group seeking to get police officers for a specific location at the expense of those other people, who might have a better claim to them."

The long view.
In 1880, when Insp. Thomas Byrnes became head of the NYPD's detective bureau, he opened a police substation on Wall Street. But the Street's financial titans provided him with quarters in the New York Stock Exchange itself and hooked up a telephone line from there to every financial house in the district. The result was that a detective could be summoned to any of them in less than five minutes. Byrnes later said that before he established the substation, millions had been stolen from the district by professional thieves. Afterward, he said, thieves stole "not even a 10-cent postage stamp."

The stock exchange was so pleased with Byrnes that it arranged to honor him and presented him with a $500 watch. Unfortunately, while the president of the exchange was conducting the ceremony, someone stole his fur-trimmed top coat. Byrnes and his men could never find it. Source: Tom Reppetto, author of "The Blue Parade," a history of policing in America.

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© 1998 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.