What a Forgotten NYPD Ghost Can Tell Us About Policing in America Today
You’ve heard about Frank Serpico, but chances are that you’ve never heard of David Durk.
In late sixties and early seventies, the New York City Police Department was awash in sea of corruption; soaking through polyester navy blue uniform shirts and permeating police culture in an insidious fashion. In those days, corruption was broken down into two main components — “grass-eaters” (e.g., the patrolman who would avoid giving tickets to double-parked cars outside of a Bronx bodega in exchange for free coffee and meals), and “meat-eaters” (e.g., narcotics officers who would shake down pushers for cash and product — heroin, mostly — and then turn around and sell it on the street through other “vendors”).
Young patrolmen just coming out of the academy were routinely paired with grizzled veterans who would indoctrinate them into police culture in two ways: first, by giving them the well-known speech that began with “forget everything you learned in the academy” and, second, by teaching them how to eat grass, or how to eat meat. In order to be accepted by colleagues who were already enmeshed in a culture of corruption, you had to choose — grass or meat — or shut up and look the other way; that was the only other acceptable option. After all, it’s kind of hard to be in a fraternity if you don’t drink and grab girls’ asses.
David Durk joined the NYPD in the early 1960s. While at the police academy, an instructor, during a lecture in class, advised cadets that they carry a self-addressed, stamped envelope with them at all times.
Well, so that, if they were ever offered a bribe, they could just stick it in the envelope, seal it, and drop it into a mailbox — thus eliminating the possibility that the bribe would be found on them. That was the NYPD that David Durk had joined — but he would never carry a SASE, and he would never eat grass, and he would never eat meat and, just a few years later, nearly every other cop in the NYPD would be wishing David Durk had never been born.
He was anathema, in nearly every way, to the typical NYPD cop of that era — or, indeed, of any era. Amherst-educated, Jewish, upper-middle class; David Durk had no business being a cop; but he had bought into the profession from a very early age and, as a young, college-educated cop (almost unheard of in those days) the NYPD happily dispatched Durk to college campuses all over the country where he zealously recruited college students to try to get them interested in becoming one of NYPD’s finest. As the Vietnam War raged on and as black people were being beaten up and attacked with dogs by racists in uniform, this must have been a hard sell on liberal college campuses as Durk was, I’m sure, regarded as a hawk lunatic by the long-haired, pot-smoking, bell-bottomed sophomores and juniors strolling around campus.
But, just like Durk wasn’t deterred by the corrupt advise of his academy instructor, he wasn’t swayed by the odd looks and cries of “Facist!” he heard shouted at him at Berkeley. He loudly, in his earnest, nasal voice extolled the virtues of a career in law enforcement, with lines like, “Being a cop, you see a whole different part of New York City,” and “I love being a cop — it’s like your last chance to be a knight-errant in our society.”
But that love affair, like so many, became quickly tainted as Durk ran into incessant as opposed to episodic corruption on the patrol level and the administration level almost everywhere he turned. When he would try to report it, he was regarded with indifference, suspicion, hostility and, of course, inaction. When all the zoo animals are sick, malnourished, and mistreated, who are you going to report it to: the zookeepers?
So Durk, seeing the thing he loved more than perhaps anything else in the world sick, malnourished, and mistreated teamed up with an equally idealistic and passionate police officer, Frank Serpico, and worked for years to amass incontrovertible proof and evidence of the extensive corruption that was well-known to all rank-and-file officers and superiors, and they took it to the only source who would listen, The New York Times. And they blew the lid off police culture that had been allowed to exist because it benefited the boys-in-blue, even as it irreparably damaged the public trust. The Knapp Commission to investigate and expose police corruption was created and hearings were held.
To my knowledge, David Durk’s impassioned statement is not available anywhere online, except in this heart-wrenching audio recording courtesy of WNYC, so I took the liberty of painstakingly transcribing his statement, and I will offer it at the end of this essay — word-for-word, as he spoke it, because I think we need to see it, now, perhaps more than ever.
David Durk passed away in 2012, and I shudder to think how crestfallen he would be were he alive in 2020, to see Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. To see what has become of the thing he loved perhaps more than anything, with the exception of his wife and his daughters. To see how we wantonly destroy, without care or compassion. To see warrior-culture prevail on the streets of America, when all David Durk wanted to do was to be a social worker, to help people talk through their differences, to intervene and intercede.
After the Knapp Commission, the NYPD did everything it could to try to shelve David Durk. They shuttled him from precinct to precinct — transferring him “umpteen times”, according to Durk, like the Catholic church does with pedophile priests. They put him behind a desk in quiet districts and one commander even told him to “not make any arrests — not even for robberies involving guns.” Of course, Durk didn’t listen — he never did. History has tried to place Durk in the shadows, too — relegating him to almost a walk-on in the 1973 film “Serpico”, favoring the more flamboyant Frank Serpico as a more dramatic Hollywood subject over the button-down, academic Durk.
But a voice like Durk’s cannot be silenced. After reading his Knapp Commission testimony from December 21, 1971, you’ll see why:
“I would like to make a statement.
Sort of, why I’m here.
I’m here because I’m a policeman, and it’s just very hard to say it, but these have been a lonely 5 years for Frank Serpico, Paul Delise and me. And I’ve had a lot of time to think about what being a cop means.
So that’s why I’d just like to take a few minutes to tell you what being a cop means to me, and maybe you can understand better some of the things that I’ve said.
At the very beginning, the most important thing to understand is that I have, and had, no special knowledge of police corruption. We knew nothing about the pep squad that Waverly Logan didn’t know. We knew nothing about the divisions that wasn’t known and testified to by Officer Phillips that wasn’t known to every man and officer in those divisions.
We knew nothing about the police traffic in narcotics that wasn’t known and testified to here by Paul Curran of the State Investigations Commission. We knew these things because we were involved in law enforcement in New York City, and anyone else who says he didn’t know had to be blind either by choice or by incompetence.
The facts have been there, waiting to be exposed. This Commission, to its enormous credit, has exposed them in a period of six months. We simply cannot believe, as we do not believe today, that those with authority and responsibility in the area, whether the District Attorneys, the Police Commanders, or those in power in City Hall, couldn’t also have exposed them in six months, or at least in six years, that is if they wanted to do it. Let me be explicit: I am not saying that all those who ignored the corruption were themselves corrupt. Whether or not they were is almost immaterial in any case. The fact is that the corruption was ignored. The fact is that, when we reported the corruption to Commissioner Frayman, he refused to act upon his responsibility. The fact is that, almost wherever we turned in the police department, wherever we turned in the City administration, and almost wherever we went in the rest of the city, we were met not with cooperation, not with appreciation, not with an eagerness to seek out the truth, but with suspicion and hostility, and laziness and inattention, and with our fear that, at any moment, our efforts might be betrayed.
There has been testimony that Frank Serpico didn’t want to testify. Some of it has been critical in tone. Frank Serpico was willing to help. He was begging. All he wanted was support, and what did he get? Commissioner Walsh said yesterday that his plan was to “leave Frank on his own.” Walsh was telling Frank: you do it alone.
These are very tough things to believe if you’re a cop. Because, to me, being a cop means believing in the rule of law. It means believing in a system of government that makes fair and just rules and then enforces them. Being a cop also means serving; helping others. If it’s not too corny, to be a cop is to help an old lady walk the street safely, to help a 12 year old reach her next birthday without being gang-raped, to help a storekeeper make a living without keeping a shotgun under his cash register, to help a boy grow up without needles in his arm. And therefore, to me, being a cop is not a job but a way to live a life. Some people say that cops live with the worst side of humanity, in the middle of all the lying and cheating, the violence and hate, and I suppose that, in some sense, it’s true. But being a cop also means being engaged with life. It means that our concern for others is not abstract. That we don’t just write a letter to the Times or give ten dollars to the United Fund once a year. It means that we put something on the line from the moment we hit the street every morning of every day of our lives. In this sense, police corruption is not about money at all, because there is no amount of money that you can pay a cop to risk his life 365 days a year.
Being a cop is a vocation, or it is nothing at all.
And that’s what I saw being destroyed by the corruption of the New York City Police Department. Destroyed for me, and for thousands of others like me. We wanted to believe in the rule of law. We wanted to believe in a system of responsibility. But those in high places everywhere, in the department, in the DA’s office, in City Hall were determined not to enforce the law, but they’d turn their heads away when law and justice were being sold on every street corner. We wanted to serve others, but the department was a home for the drug dealers and thieves. The force that was supposed to be protecting people was selling poison to their children. And there can be no life, no real life or me or anyone else on that force when, every day, we had to face the facts of our own terrible corruption. I saw that happening to men all around me, men who could have been good officers, men of decent impulse, men of ideals, but men who were without decent leadership. Men who were told, in 100 ways, every day, go along, forget about the law, don’t make waves, and SHUT UP.
So they did shut up, and they did go along, they did learn the unwritten code of the department. They went along and they lost something very precious. They weren’t cops anymore, they were a long way towards not being men anymore. And all the time I saw the other victims, too, especially the children. Children of 14 and 15 and 16; wasted by heroin, turned into streetcorner thugs and whores, ready to mug their own mother for the price of a fix. That was the price of going along, the real price of police corruption, not free meals or broken regulations, but broken dreams and dying neighborhoods and a whole generation of children being lost. That was what I had joined the department to stop. So that was why I went to the New York Times, because attention HAD to be paid, in a last desperate hope that, if the facts were known, someone must respond. And now it’s up to you.
I speak to you now as nothing more and nothing less than a cop. A cop who’s lived on this force, and is STAYING on this force and therefore is a cop who needs your help. I and my fellow policemen — we didn’t appoint you — and you don’t report to us. But all the same, there are some things as policemen that we must have for you.
First, we need you to fix responsibility for the rottenness that was allowed to fester. It must be fixed both inside and outside the department. Inside the department, responsibility has to be fixed against those top commanders who allowed or helped the situation to develop. Responsibility has to be fixed because no patrolman will believe that he should care about corruption if his superiors can get away with not caring. Responsibility also has to be fixed because commanders have to be told, again and again, and not only by the police commissioner, that the entire state of the department is up to them. And, most of all, responsibility has to be fixed because it is the first step towards recovering a simple but necessary conviction that right will be rewarded, and wrongdoing punished. Responsibility must also be fixed OUTSIDE the police department, on all the men and agencies that have helped bring us to our present pass, against all those who could have exposed this corruption, but never did. Like it or not, the policeman is convinced that he lives and works in the middle of a corrupt society, that everyone else is getting theirs, and why shouldn’t he? And that, if anybody really cared about corruption, something would have been done about it a long time ago.
We are not animals. We are not stupid. And we know very well, we policemen, that corruption does not begin with a few patrolmen, and that responsibility for corruption does not end with one aide to the mayor, or one investigations commissioner. The issue, for all of my testimony today, is not Jay Kriegel or Arnold Frayman. We know that there are many people, beyond the police department who share in the corruption and its rewards. So your report has to tell us about the District Attorneys, and the Courts, and the Bar. And the Mayor and the Governor and what they have done. And what they have failed to do, and how great a measure of responsibility they also bear. Otherwise, if you suggest, or allow others to suggest, that the responsibility belongs only to the police, then, for the patrolman on the beat and in the radio cars, this Commission will be just another part of the swindle.
This is a harsh statement, and an impolite, and a brutal statement, but it is also a statement of the truth.
Second, you have to speak to the conscience of this city. Speak for all of those without a voice, all those who are not here to be heard today, although they know the price of police corruption more intimately than anyone here. The people of the ghetto and all the other victims. Those broken in mind and spirit and hope, perhaps more than any other people in this city, they depend upon the police and the law, to protect not just their pocketbooks, but their very lives, and the lives and welfare of their children.
Tow-truck operators can write off bribes on their income tax. The expense account executive can afford a prostitute. But no one can pay a mother for the pain of seeing her children hooked on heroin. This commission, for what, I am sure, are good reasons, has not invited testimony from the communities of suffering in New York City, but this Commission must remind the force, as it must tell the rest of the city, that there are human lives at stake, that, when the police protect narcotics traffic, that we are participating in the destruction of a generation of children. It is this terrible crime for which you are fixing the responsibility, and it is this terrible crime against for which you must speak with the full outrage of the community’s conscience.
Third, as a corollary, you must help to give us a sense of priorities. To remind us that corruption, like sin, has its gradations and classifications. Of course, all corruption is bad, but we cannot fall into the trap of pretending that all corruption is EQUALLY bad. There IS a difference between accepting free meals, and selling narcotics. And if we are unable to make that distinction, then we are saying to the police that the life of a child in the South Bronx is of the same value as a cup of coffee. And that CANNOT be true, for this society or for its police force, so you must show us the difference.
Finally, your deliberations you must speak for the policemen of this city, for the best that is in them, for what most of them wanted to be, for what most of them will be. If we try. Once, I arrested a landlord’s agent — you wanted to know if I’ve arrested anyone for bribery — who offered to pay me if I would lock up a tenant who was organizing other tenants in the building. So I put the cuffs on the agent and led him away, a crowd of people, really, were around and actually said, “Viva la policia.” Of course, it was not just me, or even the police, that they were cheering. They were cheering because they had glimpsed, in that one arrest, the possibility of a system of justice that could work to protect them too. They were cheering because, if that agent could get arrested, that meant that they had rights, too, that they were citizens and that, maybe, one day, life would really be different for their children. For me, that moment was what police work is all about. But there have been far too few moments like that, and for too many times when I looked into the faces of this city and saw not hope and trust, but resentment and hate and fear. Far too many of my fellow officers have seen only hate. Far too many of them have seen their dreams of service and justice frustrated and abandoned by a corrupt system, and superiors and politicians who just didn’t care enough.
It took five years of Frank Serpico’s life, and five years of mine, to help bring this Commission about. It’s taken the lives and dedication of thousands of others to preserve as much of a police force as we have. It has taken many months of effort by all of you to help show this city the truth. What I ask of you now is to help make us clean again, to help give us some leadership we can look to, to make it possible for all the men on the force to walk at ease with their better nature, and with their fellow citizens and perhaps one day, on a warm summer night, to hear again the shout,
“Viva la policia.”