Commentary: Saluting David Durk, Hero of the NYPD

Frank Serpico may have gotten all the glory but David Durk also fought passionately against NYPD corruption

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    AP
    This 1970 file photo shows retired NYPD Detective David Durk, who teamed up with fellow officer Frank Serpico to fight police corruption in the 1960s and 70s. Durk died on Tuesday at his home in Putnam County. He was 77.

    David Durk, 77, a police officer who fought passionately to rid the NYPD of corruption, died Tuesday, the New York Times reported.

      I knew him and I can attest to his sincerity in trying to eradicate corruption in the police department. It was a lonely fight and, at times, a losing one. But Durk and a fellow officer, Frank Serpico, persisted in their efforts to battle against conditions they found intolerable.
         
    Durk followed what was then a very unusual path that led him into the NYPD.  He went to Amherst College, studied law at Columbia University and, later, became a cop. He thought he would spend his life in public service. His vision of police work was to help “an old  lady walk the streets safely” and “a storekeeper make a living without keeping a shotgun under his cash register,” according to the Times.
        
    He was quickly disillusioned. What he found was that the department was engulfed in a culture of corruption: officers and superiors taking payoffs from gamblers; merchants and gangsters paying for
    protection and information; officers dealing in drugs.
           
    He met Officer Frank Serpico at a class for police investigators and found that Serpico also hated the ingrained, corrupt culture that permeated the NYPD. For five years, the two cops tried very hard to get somebody in authority to listen to their complaints. They were turned down, again and again. And they were treated as pariahs by many fellow officers. Finally, when The New York Times printed a series of articles about the corruption charges,  Mayor John Lindsay decided to do something about it. He appointed a commission under Judge Whitman Knapp to investigate the charges.
           
    In an emotional, at times tearful speech to the commission, Durk declared: “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… To me it is not a job but a way of life.”
          
    He said that most cops were honest, dedicated and wanted to do the right thing. But, according to Durk, the cops, because of a lack of leadership, were told to go along, ignore wrongdoing they saw every day. Their creed: “Forget about the law, don’t make waves and shut up.”
            
    But the department and the city, Durk added, paid a heavy price. The cops did go along. They saw the result:  children of 14 and 15 wasted by heroin “turned into street corner mugs and whores, willing to rape 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 but broken homes in dying neighborhoods and a whole generation of people being lost. “      
            
    When the detective left the witness stand that day, he was tearful. I remember that day well. Indeed, Durk invited me to come to his home on the West Side that evening where, together, we watched how his appearance before the commission was covered by television stations. Durk seemed happy that his voice was being heard.
            
    Yet, on that night, Durk, the passionate idealist, also showed his cynical side. He didn’t believe anything would fundamentally change in the long run. He still felt that the permanent government of the NYPD would ultimately prevail.
             
    Certainly, the immediate effect of David Durk’s testimony was positive. And there were a few major changes in the wake of the Knapp investigation and even some arrests of corrupt cops.
             
    Our current Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has an unblemished reputation for honesty.
              
    Yet Durk believed that the system must be shaken up again and again to accomplish true reform. He liked to quote Teddy Roosevelt, once one of New York’s police commissioners. Said TR: “The aggressive fighting for the right is the greatest sport the world affords.”
               
    This was the essence of the passion that governed Durk’s life. He once said: “Give me 100 honest cops, wired up with recording equipment, and we could get every crooked judge, politician and policeman in town.”
     

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