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Too private for public

December 6, 1999

A bolt of lightning apparently struck Police Commissioner Howard Safir Thursday, causing him to realize nobody believed a word he said. Crime has been plummeting for the past three years, yet Newfield of the Post the paper most identified with the police was calling him the worst commissioner of the century.

Since Safir, of course, takes no responsibility for anything he does, something was obviously wrong with the department's public information office, known as DCPI. Everyone at One Police Plaza, Safir included, knew where the problem lay, but no one, Safir included, was prepared to address it.

This is because the problem was Deputy Commissioner Marilyn Mode, whom Safir brought with him from Washington, where the two worked together for more than a decade. Mode even helped Safir write one of his famous book proposals, which no publisher would touch.

So what to do? In the finest NYPD tradition, a solution presented itself. If you can't fire Mode, transfer her subordinate, DCPI's commanding officer, Inspector Mike Collins. Your Humble Servant has been around the department since 1983, and of the dozen or so officers who have sat in Collins' chair, Collins has performed as ably as any of them.

In addition, he's self-taught, as Mode was unable to provide him with any professional guidance. Collins, in fact, spent much of his time limiting the damage she caused the department-disappearing for hours, refusing to return phone calls, shouting at reporters and occasionally, some believe, making up facts, while her dog roamed the office, barking and cadging cops' lunches.

Whether his sacking was done at Mode's or Safir's behest-Collins wasn't talking-is unknown. He was told Friday morning, with no thanks or warning, destination unknown.

Next move: Bring in Deputy Chief Tom Fahey, First Deputy Pat Kelleher's best bud and a DCPI veteran, including 10 years under Alice T. McGillion, deputy commissioner under commissioners Bob McGuire and Ben Ward and the doyenne of department spokespeople. As a McGillion graduate, Fahey understands that the mission of the public-information office is to provide, not hide, public information.

The plan is to give him carte blanche, including the selection of personnel. DCPI's entire staff, therefore, may be transferred so that the problem can remain.

Of course, something is very wrong here, and it is larger than Marilyn Mode. It begins with how Mayor Rudolph Giuliani-and on a smaller scale, Safir-views the media, and on a larger scale, the public. To birds like Rudy and Howard, reporters are bugs to be squashed or flicked away. Here in the world's media capital, the public has for the past five years been fed only the crumbs of information the mayor and police commissioner deem edible.

Reporters who provide the dish are placed on City Hall's enemies' list and denied such public information as how much money the city is providing for the Police Museum run by Safir's wife ($1 million) or how many cops have been assigned there (25). Not for nothing does Your Humble Servant refer to the mayor's so-called press secretary Sunny Mindel as "Sunny the Silent." If you think this an exaggeration, recall Fahey's last tour at DCPI under John Miller. One Friday in early 1995, the mayor defenestrated Miller and disbanded the entire office. The reason: The month before, The New Yorker profiled Miller's boss Bill Bratton with nary a mention of Giuliani.

Fahey vanished in the wind. He laid low a couple of years, until he was deemed cleansed of the Bratton taint to be promotable. Supposedly because of his relationship with Kelleher, he will exercise more leverage over Mode than did Collins. Let's see if he can persuade her to leave her dog at home.

But how does Fahey clean up Safir? Can he make the commissioner sound more intelligible than Safir sounded last week in defending the department's stop-and-frisk policies, which were criticized by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer as being unfair to black and Hispanic New Yorkers? How can he explain away Safir's view-stated publicly by Deputy Commissioner for Operations Eddie Norris-that the media is responsible for the current rise in homicides? And how will he justify Safir's refusal to repay his $7,000 Revlon corporation freebie to the Oscars that not one law-enforcement official contacted by Newsday can defend? Mode, meanwhile, appears clueless about the significance of Collins' transfer.

"I know you will put the most negative interpretation possible on it," she said Friday afternoon. "Now if you will excuse me, I have to take a call from Chief Scanlon, which is about real news. Have a nice weekend."

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© 1999 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.