An Opportunity the Suburbs Shouldn’t Miss

By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, May 12, 1987

David Durk is the person probably most responsible for raising public consciousness in the New York area about police corruption. He has also been equally impassioned about the ways corruption can be reduced through heightened professionalism and about his conviction that the vast majority of cops want to be honest and proud of their work and seek only to be supported in this by the brass and the outside community.

As a whistle-blower against corruption and for responsible law enforcement, this 51-year-old former police lieutenant has been treated much like every other important whistle-blower in our time. He has been demoted, shoved aside, finally squeezed out.

Now some good-government forces in Suffolk County have put his name forward for the vacant job of county police commissioner. And the reason this is interesting — even significant — news is that Suffolk’s 2,500-person police force is currently under both federal and state investigation for patterns of corruption, politicization and incompetence.

Durk has been recommended because he is seen as a professional who could quickly turn the force around. But some of those now running things in Suffolk — among them politicians, law enforcement figures and police-union officials — have been made very anxious by the Durk nomination and are mounting an opposition.

If they should succeed in sabotaging the Durk appointment, the Suffolk police department — and the reputation of that county’s government in general — will likely remain under a cloud. This is a chance for the new county executive, Michael LoGrande, to demonstrate that he really wants to change things and lift that cloud.

He didn’t sound very encouraging on the phone the other day. Yes, Durk’s name had been submitted, he said, but “we’ve received some other names, too” and “a nationwide search is being conducted by our very qualified search committee.”

Ah, yes, that old dodge, the search committee — one of those hoary devices politicians so often employ to put off a decision or, more probably, to bury an idea that is causing extreme gastric distress.

LoGrande was asked about the corruption in the police department and about Durk’s obvious qualifications for dealing with this. “Oh, yes,” the county executive replied, “but we have to know how well he can manage a force of this size. Can he computerize the department? Does he understand the legal issues? He has to be able to delegate authority, manage things, grasp concepts.” The only requisite LoGrande didn’t mention was a graduate degree in coping with search committees.

What about the opposition to Durk, LoGrande was asked? “Opposition?” he replied incredulously. “I haven’t heard anything about that.” As I said, not a very encouraging conversation.

But one can understand their acute dyspepsia. Durk would change things and that makes people nervous. Even honest people. But it especially makes crooked people nervous — so nervous that they’re willing to spend lots of money and time to remove the cause of the dyspepsia. 

They know Durk’s history — an Amherst-educated cop who proved himself on the street and believed in the notion that cops want to do a community service and to be straight and that they become cynical and bent only because the system, meaning their leadership, doesn’t affirm and protect those who follow these goals.

It was David Durk and Frank Serpico who blew the whistle on corruption inside the New York City force back in 1970. Their evidence and witnesses led to the Knapp Commission hearings. Convictions of some of the bad apples followed, but the brass managed to dodge the indictments.

And the brass remembered Durk. Instead of giving him larger responsibilities, they shifted him here and there — to a paperwork job in Queens, to the United Nations to work on a proposed international code of police ethics. Once, in 1977, his name was mentioned as a possiblity when Mayor Edward Koch was choosing his first police commissioner, but of course it never happened.

Finally, Durk was given a job in the city’s Finance Department, as an assistant commissioner heading the investigative unit there. He went after cigarette-tax evasion and organized the successful crackdown on big-time sales-tax cheating by luxury jewelry and fur shops. But he wanted to go further into tax corruption and this meant poking at some very big names. so, late last year, he was pushed out of the Finance Department, too. And now they’re trying to deny him his full city pension. The punishment of whistle-blowers never ceases.

I called some of the people who have worked with Durk over the years to ask their opinions of his skills and qualifications.

Jacob Mishler, a senior U.S. judge in the Eastern District, called Durk “a man of honesty, decency and courage. He has a spirit of integrity that we too often overlook. He also has great skill and efficiency, but there’s no doubt about it, when you try to clean your own house, you get a lot of occupants who take a dislike to you.”

Henry Ruth, who succeeded Leon Jaworski as Watergate prosecutor, said: “David Durk would make a very strong leader. He brings a lot of imagination but also a total comprehension of what is needed to reinforce a police officer in his work. And he’s got the kind of integrity that would soon pervade any police force he commanded.”

And Rudolph Giuliani, the U.S. attorney, said: “David is the perfect guy to take over a police department if there are questions about the performance and integrity of that department. David will turn that around in a matter of months. And he has administrative expertise, gained from running organizations of complexity. His problems have been with police bureaucrats, not with the cop on the beat. He would be a cop’s commissioner; he’s their supporter and champion and always has been.”

I certainly hope County Executive LoGrande and his search committee are listening. 

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