Charter member of the whistleblowers hall of fame.
Frank Serpico was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 14, 1936. His parents were recent immigrants from Italy and while growing up on those mean streets young Frank had a life long ambition. He wanted to become a cop.
When he turned eighteen, Frank did what many young boys did at the time when they wanted to escape for awhile. He joined the United States Army and his tour of duty included two years in war torn Korea. After his discharge, he came back to New York City and found work as a private investigator and counseling teens while still managing to attend college. All during that time, he still held onto his dream of becoming one of New York’s Finest.
A Dream Comes True
In 1959 he got his wish and joined the NYPD. He was sworn in on a probationary basis as a patrolman and after six months on the job became a full time cop. Upon receiving his badge, he had it redone so as to appear shinier than that of his fellow patrolman. It seems that in his mind, it would garner him more respect amongst his peers and the citizenry of New York.
While wearing the uniform for twelve years, Serpico did his job with the utmost professionalism. After all that time on the streets he was rewarded with a stint in the Bureau of Criminal Identification. It was there that he learned the fine art of fingerprinting and identification. After two years behind a desk, Serpico once again felt the call of the streets and this time he was assigned as a plainclothes detective where he could work undercover.
From Dreams to Nightmares
At the time, New York City cops had pretty much a free reign on how they went about their business. There was little if any oversight, especially amongst the plainclothesmen. Given the nature of their duty, nobody asked too many questions about their methods and as long as the job got done, it didn’t seem to matter how they went about making arrests or how they conducted their affairs. What went on amongst them stayed in the unit and outsiders were frowned upon and new members of their tribe were held in suspicion until they were able to “prove” themselves.
Serpico didn’t last long among his peers. He refused to take part in the then common practice of taking bribes and conveniently looking the other way that seemed rampant among his fellow officers. In 1967, he wrote to his superiors that there was “credible evidence of widespread, systematic police corruption.” Nothing came of his report and it was filed in the bowels of the bureaucracy.
In 1970 Serpico had seen and had enough. He decided to go public with his allegations of bribery and kickbacks amongst his fellow officers and even went as far as to testify against his former partner. His reward for his efforts came in the form a death threats directed at him and his family. Sources inside the police department itself couldn’t be trusted and word leaked about Serpico’s whereabouts and the secret meetings with those in charge of the investigation. Shunned by his fellow officers, Serpico become a pariah in what was then a good old boys mentality.
In April of 1970 the New York Times blew the lid off the story when it ran a front page expose` about the rampant corruption going on inside the NYPD. New York’s mayor at the time, one John V. Lindsay, immediately set up a task force that would later be known as the Knapp Commission to shed some much needed light on the inner workings of the police department.
Some strange events happened to Serpico even before he could even testify against his fellow officers. During a routine drug bust, he was shot in the face. Accounts vary about the events in question but here’s generally what is considered to have gone down.
The cops received word from one of their informants that a heroin deal was going to take place. They immediately staked out the location and two officers stayed in an unmarked car while another took up a position in front of the building where the deal was supposed to go down.
Once the suspects arrived, Serpico followed them into the building by climbing the fire escape and remained hidden while he listened to the password that the suspects used to gain entry into an apartment. Once the suspects departed, Serpico followed them outside and identified them to his fellow officers. They were quickly apprehended and now Serpico was to go back inside and use the password he obtained to make a buy himself and arrest the dealers. Three of his fellow officers were to follow him upstairs and remain hidden until it was time to make the arrest.
Serpico knocked on suspect’s door and the door was opened a few inches. It was held in place by one of those chain locks and Serpico quickly tried to push it open. He had his hand on his revolver and identified himself as cop. The dealers inside panicked and tried to slam the door shut but Serpico found himself wedged in between the space. He called out to his fellow officers for assistance but none seemed to be forthcoming.
In a flash of white, a gun went off and Serpico was shot point blank in the face. The bullet from a .22 caliber handgun entered just below his eye and wound up being lodged in his lower jaw. He stumbled backwards and fell to the floor.
His colleagues, his brothers in arms responded by doing nothing. They failed to call in the shooting to their superiors and stood idly by while Serpico slowly bled to death. If it weren’t for the efforts of an elderly Hispanic man who lived in the building and saw what was happening, Serpico probably would have died where he lay. He dialed 911 and then stayed with Serpico and tried to quell his bleeding until an ambulance arrived. A patrol car was finally dispatched to the scene and arrived before the ambulance. The officers in the car had no idea who the victim was and took Serpico to a nearby hospital.
Questions remain to this day about whether Serpico was set up by his fellow officers. Certainly their lack of action in the face of an “officer down” situation is galling enough but when you consider that many of them also visited Serpico while he was in the hospital and harassed him on an almost hourly basis, well, you be the judge.
Serpico was to survive his wounds and eventually testify in front of the Knapp Commission. This marked the first time in the country’s history that an officer of the law had broken ranks and publicly testified against his fellow officers. In his own words…
"Through my appearance here today." "I hope that police officers in the future will not experience the same frustration and anxiety that I was subjected to for the past five years at the hands of my superiors because of my attempt to report corruption... We create an atmosphere in which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer, and not the other way around." "The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which honest police officers can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers."
As a result of the findings of the Knapp Commission, many officers of the NYPD were forced to resign and while the actual amount of the graft and the changing hands of money in return for favors has never been determined, it’s been estimated in the millions.
Calling it Quits
For his efforts, the NYPD publicly lauded Serpico but privately loathed him. After all, based on his testimony, careers were ruined and lives were shattered. The thin blue line had developed a crack and the crack's name was Frank Serpico.
Frank Serpico received a gold shield and a promotion to detective. The city responded by awarding him their Medal of Honor. Still fearing for his life, Serpico quit the force on June 15, 1972. Later that year, he traveled to Europe to recuperate from his wounds and from the stress that he experienced in exposing his fellow officers. He rented a camper and traveled throughout the continent looking for some peace. He was soon tracked down in Switzerland by the FBI who wanted him to return to the States in order to testify against a growing police corruption scandal in New Jersey. Serpico, perhaps in fear for his life, refused.
He wouldn’t return again until 1980.
Today, Frank Serpico is still alive and is rumored to be living a relatively quiet life somewhere in the hills of upstate New York. Now over seventy years old, Serpico still manages to venture out on the lecture circuit every now and then. His topic, police corruption and brutality.
Hey Frank, if you ever read this, I just wanna say thanks. I wish you peace.
A fine movie aptly titled Serpico and based on the events that transpired starring Al Pacino was made 1973. For his portrayal of Frank Serpico, Pacino was awarded the Oscar for Best Actor in a leading role. In my minds eye, the film still remains relevant to this day.
If you haven’t seen it, you should.