Officer David Shifren never really planned on becoming a police officer, let alone a Pittsburgh police officer.
He was a writer living just outside New York City when in 1989 he decided to make the trip west to pursue an MFA in fiction writing at Pitt. He came to town and never left.
The story gets progressively more unusual from there.
While studying at Pitt, Shifren was offered a job writing for a very popular series of mystery novels. He’s contractually forbidden from naming the series here, in part because he wrote using a pen name, the same shared by all authors who’ve written for the series. But it’s safe to say you’ve heard of this young adult franchise built around a pair of sibling sleuths. (*wink-wink*)
Shifren wrote one book for the series and then another. He started pitching his own ideas for installments. One was set inside a police academy.
But there was a problem with that.
Shifren quickly realized that he didn’t really know anything about police academies. He lacked any source material to make it ring authentic. He needed to know what they looked and sounded like and how they moved.
So he made the obvious if not entirely logical decision to join one.
That was decades ago.
All the elements
Officer Shifren is a writer-turned-cop. It’s an inversion of the much more common cop-turned-writer designation, a hyphenate that at this point could reasonably be credited with birthing its own literary genre. (Picture Bukowski with a badge.)
Shifren was a writer before he came to Pennsylvania.
He’d worked as a film reviewer for the now-defunct CBS/Fox Company and for Film Journal magazine. He’d authored a number of Louis L’Amour-style westerns under the pen name Shiff Davis. (His publishers thought the name sounded more western and would therefore “sell more westerns” to a loyal audience of long-haul truckers.)
He was teaching at a private school in Hoboken, N.J., just across the river from Manhattan, when he decided he wanted to pursue a more advanced degree.
He came to Pitt and met a classmate who was already writing for the “very popular mystery series” referenced above.
“We got to know each other, and she said, ‘You’ve taught kids before. You’ve been published.’ She thought I could write a book like this. So she recommended me to her editor.”
Shifren got the job and started writing. He eventually started pitching his own ideas for installments of the series, including one drawn from the summer he’d spent working for a traveling circus as an undergrad. Shifren says the circus job was manual labor, grunt work — a way to earn disposable income and maybe more importantly the kind of atypical experiences aspiring writers always crave. At worst, it would be a Kerouacian misadventure.
“I didn’t think that experience would become a book 30 years later, but it did,” Shifren told The Incline recently after one of the Osher classes on film that he teaches at Pitt.
It was around this time that Shifren began to hit his stride.
With the help of legendary Pittsburgh police commander Ronald Freeman, Shifren arranged a ride-along with city homicide detectives to further immerse himself in this new world and subject matter.
It was the early 90s. The city was in the grips of a dramatic surge in murders, along with much of the nation. Shifren saw things he will never unsee, including a suspected suicide by firearm in a Downtown office building on his very first call.
“I remember seeing this body and the blood. I had some gum in my mouth and I remember thinking: OK, keep your hands in your pockets. Don’t touch anything. Just concentrate on chewing the gum.” Shifren estimates that he saw dozens of bodies in ride-alongs with city detectives spread out over a roughly two-year period.
He was left shaken but intrigued by the process, the profession and the men and women who claim it.
He remained intrigued when later he pitched the idea for a police academy-based installment of that mystery series.
“That hadn’t been done and seemed a natural fit,” he recalled. “It had the clues, the mysteries, the danger. It had all the elements.”
Shifren added: “But then I decided that to really write about a police academy, I needed to go to the police academy. Maybe on some level I also thought, you know, this would be a nice job to have.”
‘The greatest show on earth’
Shifren attended two police academies in total.
After his MFA studies wrapped at Pitt in 1992, he spent the next few years writing — both for the mystery series and for his run of westerns.
Near the end of that decade, he pitched the police academy book idea and decided to research it by enrolling in a months-long police academy program hosted by Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
He graduated the program, but instead of taking his lived experience and going home — or back to the typewriter — he took a job as a patrol officer in Baldwin Borough.
He was older than most recruits and ribbed accordingly.
“I got a little teasing for being an older recruit,” Shifren recalled. “And one day I’m getting ribbed, and the chief overhears and says to the guy, ‘Hey, I’m 42, too. You got a problem with that?’ Of course, the difference in our rank was all the difference in the world.”
Shifren left that job five years later to re-focus on his writing and to work on a movie with actor Tony Curtis who’d expressed interest in a screenplay Shifren had written about an aging mafia boss faced with a coup.
But Curtis died from heart failure in 2010 before the project got off the ground and it stalled and stayed there.
Shifren returned to law enforcement roughly three years later. This time he attended the City of Pittsburgh police academy and went straight to work for the bureau upon graduating.
He continued writing throughout, but his police academy mystery book was never finished.
“Full-time policing is very absorbing,” he said. “(Becoming a police officer) was a flaw in the plan from the standpoint of that book. But it was a good move in terms of finding a satisfying job.”
Over the years, that job has morphed into a career, maybe even a calling.
Shifren is now a community resource officer for the city’s police force, serving primarily in Zone 4. He’s spearheaded the creation of the Pittsburgh Police Chess Club, a way of connecting officers with youth from disadvantaged neighborhoods and of teaching those youth problem-solving skills via the board game. He also writes a weekly newsletter — no pen name necessary — with neighborhood crime snapshots and tips on how to avoid becoming a victim of theft or burglary.
This isn’t a tradeoff. While the police academy book never happened, Shifren is still writing creatively — often in the mornings before his shift begins at noon.
He says there’s a good bit of commonality between the two halves — or maybe they’re not halves at all but rather sides of the same coin.
“You’re a student of psychology and human nature in both cases. Whether it’s policing or writing, motivation is everything — or not everything, but it’s a lot,” Shifren said. “As an officer, yeah, you have to have some kind of understanding of what motivates people. (…) And it’s true that a police officer who isn’t observant and just is kind of oblivious to his or her surroundings is as useless as a writer who is that.”
Shifren has a knack for equating things in this way. He has the comportment you’d expect from both an officer and an author. His mannerisms are James Caan-esque and self-assured. He’s deliberate and cautious, restless and plain-spoken.
He says good writers, like good cops, are succinct. He says good police reports, much like good writing, follow the “show, don’t tell” adage. Cops pride themselves on being able to read people, and writers do the same.
And Shifren would know. He’s been both for a long time now.
He’s turning 65 in January and considering taking advantage of the bureau’s extended mandatory retirement age to stick around a little longer.
“You know what they say about policing, right?” Shifren asks. “It’s front row tickets to the greatest show on earth.”
After years of this work, Shifren has amassed a wealth of granular detail and insight, the likes of which he could have only dreamed about as an MFA grad pitching a police academy whodunnit to an editor.
So, what’s he going to do with all that material now?
Shifren, the writer-turned-cop-turned-writer, says the answer is fairly obvious.
“I’m working on a cop book.”