Some people are wired to serve.
Take Ron Wolfgang, who retired after two decades with the NYPD on a Friday. The next Monday he was on the job again, leading the policing arm of the Downtown Alliance.
The position, which he’s now had for nine and a half years: senior vice-president of operations. “We’re a presence,” he says of the division he oversees. “We’re a follow-up, we’re a neighborhood busybody. We report back on things.”
A former NYPD police sergeant with the First Precinct, Wolfgang turned down a police department promotion to take instead his alliance job. Wolfgang, 50, is not alone; many of the alliance managers are former NYPD cops, including Dave Harvin, the assistant director for public safety. By the same token, many public safety officers work their way up to becoming city police officers.
Operations officers can be seen at work on city streets. Take Tahany Abdullah, a public safety officer who stands at Park Place and Broadway in Lower Manhattan. She’s amidst the fast-paced chaos of tourists, workers, residents and traffic — movement in every direction. She’s quietly surveying the area, as if working under the radar, and looks a bit like a high-end hotel doorman.
Identifiable by her uniform, the white shirt and red pocket flaps and red hat, Abdullah was hired and trained by the alliance. She points her finger and arm towards Broadway and says she’d been eyeing unusual numbers of speeding cyclists. Now she’s evaluating whether it was a group that could potentially become unruly. Then she holds her walkie-talkie pinned to her chest and mimes the call about the homeless she just made to her superiors.
She’s paying attention. And then she relaxes again.
Soon Abdullah will patrol the rest of the area she is assigned to, along with the sixty-four of her fellow public safety, men and women officers, or “red coats.” They are spread out throughout the area, below Chambers Street, armed with radios, some with tablets, but all with finely tuned eyes and ears. It’s a 24-hour, 7-day operation.
These officers report suspicious packages and behaviors, car accidents and shed light on events that lead to arrests. They learn about counter-terrorism from the police and, on the lighter side, they even get training to know about the many local tourist attractions. That’s key because they’re often approached for information on the street, and even asked by tourists for recommendations on what to see.
Officers are used to being busy, with a graffiti hit here or a crime condition over there. Sometimes during school dismissals, kids are fighting. Public safety officers see it all. A few days earlier, an officer was approached by panicked parents, separated from their child when subway doors closed quickly. The officer radioed another officer who was closer to the next station, then ran fast and met the train in time to locate the child, leading to a reunion.
Wolfgang says of those on his team: “They’re there to do what they can.” He outlines the role they play.
“They’re diplomats,” he says. “They’re our ambassadors on the street. And in terms the law enforcement end of things, they’re our eyes and ears.”
The color red was not arbitrary, and it’s used on vehicles and buses too. Wolfgang says that Mike O’Connor, first head of the alliance when it started back in 1999, “didn’t want the public safety officers to look like police, pretend to be police, but wanted them to be readily identified as this other agency, a presence in the district.”
The idea, according to Wolfgang, was “to say, ‘You can ask me a question and I’m going to be eyes and ears if you’re doing something wrong.’”
The alliance’s officers work with, and share information with, the police on a daily basis, Wolfgang says. Partners include the NYPD’s First Precinct, the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, The World Trade Center campus, as well as with other local groups, including Bowery Residents Committee. The alliance actually shares its sub-station at 65 Broadway with an NYPD scooter unit.
When it comes to the difference between his current job and his last, Wolfgang says, “You can’t compare the two sets of responsibilities. When you work for the police department, it’s a tremendous amount of responsibility. You walk out the door every day and you don’t know what you’re going to get involved in.”
Still, he says the day-to-day operations between the two agencies really are not that different.
“So much of the way Downtown Alliance is set up mirrors how the police department functions, but without enforcement power,” he says. “We don’t do the arrests. We don’t carry guns. But most police work is done without guns. It’s about talking to people.”