David Durk: Another Lost Whistle-Blower

David Durk received in death what he felt he was denied in life: recognition.
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David Durk received in death what he felt he was denied in life: recognition.

Recognition for bringing forward police officer Frank Serpico, whose revelations led to the Knapp Commission and the subsequent end of the NYPD's pervasive and systemic corruption.

Durk, who died last week at age 77, is another tragic example of what can befall a whistle-blower who goes up against a gigantic and powerful organization like the NYPD. [See NYPD Confidential, Nov. 12, 2012.]

In Durk's case, his difficulties were compounded by his background. He was a graduate of elite Amherst College, at a time when few officers in the NYPD or any other police department graduated from any college whatsoever.

While coming from an elitist background has its advantages, it also has drawbacks -- in Durk's case, his outsized ambitions and sense of entitlement.

Serpico, whose father was an immigrant shoemaker, sought only a detective shield. Durk sought fame. When fame passed him by, he never recovered.

"Would all this have happened without Durk? I don't know," Serpico said last week. "But Durk didn't go through what I went through."

Their story began in the late 1960s after Serpico joined a plainclothes unit in the Bronx and discovered the unit was on the take. Durk, who had city-wide connections well beyond the police department, brought him to fellow Amherst graduate, Jay Kriegel, a top aide to Mayor John Lindsay.

Did Kriegel tell Lindsay of Serpico's allegations? That was the question. He told this reporter, then a pup in the employ of TIME magazine, that he had. Apparently to protect Lindsay, he testified a few months later under oath before the Knapp Commission that he hadn't.

Serpcio, meanwhile, became a marked man. He received death threats for "ratting out" fellow cops. When he was shot in the face by a drug dealer during a police raid, a bullet lodged in his brain, leaving him deaf in his left ear. He believed the department had set him up.

With Lindsay failing to act on Serpico's allegations, Durk next brought him to the New York Times. Lindsay warned the Times' publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, that Serpico was a psycho who could not be trusted. But the Times' police bureau chief, David Burnham, confirmed Serpico's allegations with Serpico's former partner, Paul Delise, who had risen to the rank of inspector.

Burnham reported Serpico's story across the Times' front pages. Lindsay was pressured into appointing an independent commission to investigate -- hence the Knapp Commission.

After three weeks of hearings -- in which both Serpico and Durk testified together with a score of other witnesses -- the commission concluded that corruption in the NYPD was endemic and institutionalized, reaching to its highest levels, even inside the police commissioner's office. The police commissioner, Howard Leary, was forced to resign. Lindsay's brief flirtation with running for president was upended.

It seemed a perfect Hollywood story and Durk briefly became a celebrity. He was fawned upon by the literati, appeared on Johnny Carson, was asked to teach a course on policing at Yale, was invited to the White House.

A book and movie deal followed. Durk pushed his own deal, with Paul Newman to play him. "This movie isn't going to be about you," Serpico recalled Durk telling him at the time. "You're just one of the cops."

But when the book and movie came out, they were about Serpico, not Durk. The book Serpico became a best seller. The movie Serpico starred Al Pacino and was a box-office hit.

By then, Durk and Serpico had fallen out. "Hollywood got in the way," Serpico said. "He had his version, I had mine."

What he meant was that Durk had stars in his eyes while he had a bullet in his brain.

"He tried to put across the image that he was the smart guy and I was the bumbling Italian sidekick," Serpico said. "I graduated from Brooklyn College and John Jay. Durk then told people that Arlene, his wife, had written my term paper. It was offensive."

Serpico retired from the police department after the Knapp Commissioner hearings ended and took off for Europe. He lived there for the next decade as a recluse. In Holland, he saved a young girl from drowning. Later, he brought before the Amsterdam police commissioner. On his desk was a copy of Serpico. "Mr. Serpico, may I shake your hand?" the commissioner asked him.

Returning to New York in the 1980s, Serpico has lived simply upstate, and spent the rest of his life trying to accept his fame and iconic status.

Durk remained in the police department but his career went nowhere. Serpico referred to him as a "college boy," implying that he was well-meaning but naïve. "He was more a pol than a cop. He thought being a cop was a game. He never understood it was for real."

In his book, Crusader: The Hell-Raising Police Career of Detective David Durk, the writer James Lardner described how as a rookie Durk was ordered to wax the stationhouse floor. He responded by saying to his sergeant, "You're asking me to do something that is not within the civil service specs for the job of patrolman."

He was then ordered the scrub the walls with a toothbrush.

As years passed, Durk grew testy and bitter, accusing all who disagreed with him, including this reporter, of being corrupt themselves. He remained in the department for another decade after the Knapp Commission, then retired.

Today, another cop whistle-blower who has received a lot of media attention faces the dilemma that both Durk and Serpico did. That cop is Adrian Schoolcraft.

After charging that superiors in his Brooklyn precinct had downgraded crimes to make the city appear safer than it actually was, a police posse appeared at his apartment, hauled him off to Jamaica Hospital, which kept him in a psychiatric ward for six days against his will.

His charges against his precinct bosses were later substantiated and they were either disciplined or transferred.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly announced a full-scale investigation, to be conducted by a blue ribbon committee of three former prosecutors, to determine whether the downgrading is city-wide. Nearly two years later, one of the three has died and Kelly has issued neither a report nor an explanation.

Nor has he explained the police role in Schoolcraft's forced hospitalization.

While he was hospitalized, Schoolcraft's father Larry reached out to Durk. Durk contacted then captain Brandon Del Pozo, an Ivy League graduate, then in Internal Affairs. Del Pozo, tried to fashion a resolution in which Schoolcraft would return to department and be assigned to the canine unit because he supposedly loves dogs. Nothing came of it.

When Larry Schoolcraft later reached Durk's daughter, Durk told him bluntly, "Stop harassing my family."

The Schoolcrafts, father and son, have also reached out to Serpico. "Don't try to explain to anyone what you went through," Serpico advised Adrian. "Don't expect anybody to understand. I can't explain to anybody what I went through."

Adrian Schoolcraft is currently suing the police department for $50 million but recently fired his attorney. Those who know the Schoolcrafts are uncertain what they are seeking: fame, money or a public airing of their grievances?

In what direction Adrian will turn remains unknown.

Also unknown is whether he will end up as Serpico or as Durk.

With editing from Donald Forst

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