Crusader Academy Washout: That Time I Almost Became a Police Officer

Drop and give me twenty.

My career in law enforcement lasted 48 hours.

Police academy washouts are not rare, and I doubt even my own personal experience was a record in brevity, but it felt like it was at the time; fifteen years ago.

I suspect that, in many families, young people telling their parents that they are about to embark on a career in policing doesn’t create too much upheaval. I suspect most families see it coming. “My father was a cop, my grandfather was a cop, my uncles are cops,” that kind of thing. In my family, it shouldn’t have been, I don’t think, as out-of-the-blue as it evidently was.

My great grandmother’s second husband was a Philadelphia police officer — one of the first Jewish foot patrolmen in the city. His son, Frank Goldberg, became a Staff Inspector — probably one of the first Jewish high-ranking officers in the department. My father went out for lunch with Frank one day and met him at police headquarters. “Should we walk to the restaurant?” my father asked. “No,” Frank replied, “my boy is going to drive us.” Sure enough, an immense, dark green Plymouth Fury with a long whip antenna mounted on the trunk and small dog-dish hubcaps pulled up, being piloted by a young, black police officer.

My boy.

I feel like I have been making up stories in my brain about why I wanted to be a police officer for years. Explaining it, justifying it, apologizing for it, hedging it, dancing around it, being terrified by it, intrigued by it, repulsed by it. I have told myself and others so many lies and half-cocked bullshit versions of the events that I have no idea what is true anymore. I don’t know what eighteen-year-old Gabriel was thinking, and how those thoughts morphed and changed and became corrupted and influenced and molested and massaged, damaged and deranged by the time twenty-three-year-old Gabriel was standing at attention, beside a school desk, in a crisp, white dress shirt, black necktie, black trousers, black socks, black shined shoes because some fat schlub had walked into the room.

Attention.

At a very impressionable age, I read the story of David Durk. You’ve heard of Frank Serpico, but you’ve never heard of David Durk. You’ve heard of how Frank Serpico, embodied forever by the dazzling, grizzled, unwashed Al Pacino, took on the New York City Police Department’s rampant corruption in the early 1970’s, but you’ve never heard of how it never would have happened without David Durk . Because he was basically written out of the movie. Hollywood does that.

Careful what you read while your brain is still developing.

College-educated, at a time when that was practically unheard of in the uniformed ranks of the NYPD, Jewish, upper middle class, Amherst-educated, professional parents, articulate and argumentative to a fault, unflappable, incorruptible and relentless. David Durk believed in system-wide accountability for system-wide corruption. Don’t just go after the patrolmen who take $10 a week from the bodega owner for not enforcing parking laws in front of their shop, go after the veteran who teaches the young cop the ways of the street, go after the sergeant who directs officers to make bogus arrests to meet quotas that make him look good, go after the captains and the lieutenants who have demand that graft and misuse of authority continue, and, most of all, go after the people whom Durk referred to as “the people with flags in their offices” — the commanders, the deputy-inspectors, the chiefs, who look the other way because they can’t bear to look themselves in the eye.

Durk was half-insane and half-beautiful in the manner in which he took on the profession with which he had fallen in love, the profession that would never, ever love him back. He teamed up with Frank Serpico and he went for the NYPD’s jugular, and he never let go, blowing the lid off an institutionalized culture of corruption that formed the Knapp Commission and brought about widespread change to the NYPD. Durk testified at the hearing and, in an extraordinary, soaring speech, the likes of which has probably never been delivered by a New York City police officer, in his grating, hyponasal Jewish voice, Durk lamented what had happened to the job he loved, his own personal disappointment at the realities of policing in New York; about what happens to good men who want to do a good job, but cannot. And he broke down in tears and ran out of the room, leaving a stunned crowd to applaud the empty wooden chair upon which he’d sat.

“Viva la policia,” Durk’s last words before breaking down and leaving the hearing.

The real tragedy of all of Durk’s efforts wasn’t, I don’t think, that he was ignored and minimized in the film “Serpico”, but it was that the Knapp Commission didn’t succeed in bringing down one senior-level officer, which must have broken Durk’s heart.

Every boy has heroes. Sometimes they’re athletes or movie stars. My hero was a short, irascible, downy-haired man who lived and died with an unrequited love in his heart for a culture that existed only in his mind — our minds.

David Durk died in 2012. He had retired from the police department that must have breathed an intense sigh of relief on the day his peace-out papers were signed in 1985 with a pension of $17,000 a year on which to live: a final fuck-you to a man who had earned so many of those over his career. I think I wanted to sit with him at his kitchen table over coffee more than I wanted to become a police officer.

David Durk is one of the lies and stories I’ve told myself over the years about why I wanted to become a cop. So that I could invoke change from the inside. So that I could talk to people in my neighborhood in a way that could make them smile, laugh, connect with them in a meaningful way, make them proud to know that I was a cop in their town. Our Town.

It was romantic, idealistic, insane, childish, inept, dangerous, problematic and egregious. It was wonderful.

— — —

My father and I are on our knees together on the living room floor. He is holding onto me so tightly I feel like my ribs are going to crack. He is pressed up against me in a way that a father should not be pressed up against his son and his body is so hot and his tears and his snot are practically pouring out onto my shirt collar and my shoulder. He is digging his thick, Israeli fingers into my back, as if he is trying to extract some truth or sense from inside me. I am trembling and my knees are pressing down into the carpet and he is holding me. I don’t know how to tell this man about David Durk or about how much I detest the trope of the feeble, Ashkenazi Jew or how I want to be an articulate, eloquent peacemaker and never pull my gun, about how I want to have long conversations in the car with my partner and try to figure out the world with him or her, about how I want to drink coffee and drive a car with column shift and call out a radio signal that is all mine and be a part of something that could very possibly be special if it tried, if it wanted that the way I wanted that. That I wanted to live a life of purpose.

“I don’t understand,” he said, sobbing, “but I will help you. I swear to God I will.”

But he couldn’t help me bench-press 93% of my own body-weight, and so I left the academy after two days. Because they said anybody who couldn’t pass one or more of the physical fitness tests would be dismissed. And then, when 65% of the class failed one or more of the tests, they said, well, that’s just something we tell cadets. Just get your scores up by the re-test in six months.

But I left, because that’s how corruption starts, and, way more than I actually wanted to be a cop, I wanted to be David Durk.

Gabe is Editor in Chief of OC87 Recovery Diaries, an online mental health publication. He owns far too many ties.