Sheinkopf Speaks: A Civil Servants’ Tale

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Ditmas Junior High School. From Google Maps
Hank Sheinkopf

Young reporters on the political beat learn early on that the politicians come and they go. Elections pass, results certified. Time moves on. So do electeds and staff.

The people who actually make the city, our state, our region work don’t disappear after elections. They are not term-limited or tossed aside by an unforgiving or uninterested electorate. They put in their time. The years move and toward the end of careers, they count the days until the reward of a promised pension.  

How do we remember the people who keep the city, state, region working?

There was a teacher, retired, who passed this year. His name was Martin Cohen. He stood in the hallway leading to his classroom at Ditmas Junior High School in Brooklyn, smiling, daily welcoming students. One student, 13 or so, would come to school eyes black, lip split. In the days when looking the other way was all beaten school children had to rely on, Marty Cohen asked questions. Beatings. Abuse. Violence so bad the neighbors got tired of the sounds of a head being banged overhead. Thuds and yells. And cops banging on the door telling everyone to shut up or else. 

Marty Cohen tried to help. But the kid whose face looked like it would never heal, disappeared. Cohen spent the rest of his career wondering if the kid lived. And as a result he worked with abused children for the rest of his career.

Major Case-Bank Squad Detectives Frank Allen and Maurice Prescott. Their jobs? Make sure a group of cop killers who worked daily to escape from city jails remained locked up pending trial, and then transport those most dangerous of criminals to state and federal prisons. And arrest bank robbers.

NYC Correction Department Captain Gus Mellon courageously created the agency investigation unit, worked on corruption, abuse and security cases. When he retired many weren’t so sorry to see him go. He was humble. He only did the best he could, and that was all.  

Some New Yorkers tell themselves lies about our civil servants. They say there are too many of them. And that they cost too much. In fact, today we are down 1500 school safety agents, short 2000 detectives, minus who knows how many correction officers.

Now you know why schools are unsafe, why jail violence and gangs are uncontrollable. The facts don’t allow space for politicians’ opinions.  

Maybe it’s personal. I was the kid Marty Cohen the city school teacher tried to save. I worked with Detectives Frank Allen and Maurice “Scotty” Prescott. And for Gus Mellon, too.

The people you meet on the ground in a New York City life never make the gossip columns. They don’t go to after-hours clubs. Only their families remember them when time runs out. The photos fade. Memory dims. 

Without the people you never heard, the people who actually make the city, state, region work, what would we have. Depends who you ask. And how much they don’t know. After all, they were only civil servants.

We could use lots more like them.