New York Daily News

Photo by Andrew Savulich/New York Daily News
While growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, just a short train ride away from New York City, I always heard tales of my distant cousin, Frank Serpico "the Cop", from my father, my aunt, and my grandmother. From what I understood, he is my grandmother's third cousin, and all I knew as a kid was that he stood up to corruption among police and got shot in the face for it.

Serpico movie

Poster for "Serpico" (1973) starring Al Pacino
As a kid I didn't quite understand his importance yet, but when I grew up and started questioning the world around me, particularly my religious upbringing and then the government, I began to see all of the evil and corruption at the heart of society - I soon realized what a great man Frank truly is. I eventually became more interested in Frank after seeing the movie "Serpico" (1973) starring Al Pacino (based on a biography also titled Serpico written by Peter Maas) and it dawned on me how questioning authority and exposing corruption might just run in my blood. Although semi-famous, I found that hardly anyone of my generation knew who he was, let alone what he did and how important it is. I've never actually met Frank, although I would certainly like to - so if you're reading this, Serpico, don't hesitate to reach out!

With the increasing militarization of police departments, rampant police brutality across the country, the sparking of the Black Lives Matter movement, and roughly 1000 people killed by police officers in 2015 alone (well over 1000 according to killedbypolice.net), we are dealing with something serious in this country. I feel now is more important than ever for more people (particularly those of my generation) to be aware of who Frank Serpico is, what he did at great risk to his own life, and why it's important. We must all speak out about militarization of police, police brutality, and other instances of corruption in law enforcement, and it is especially important for the few remaining good cops, those who truly want to change the oppressive atmosphere within the police force that Serpico endured, to also speak out.

The Renegade Cop

Francesco Vincent "Frank" Serpico was born April 14th, 1936 in Brooklyn, New York, of Italian immigrant parents from Naples, Italy. When he was 17 Frank enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed in South Korea for two years as an infantryman. Afterward, he worked briefly as a private-investigator and a youth counselor while attending Brooklyn College. He eventually joined the New York Police Department (NYPD) in September of 1959 as a probationary patrolman. In 1960 he became a full patrolman and was assigned to the 81st precinct. He also worked for the Bureau of Criminal Identification for two years. Finally, he was assigned to work as a plainclothes cop, which he preferred because he liked to dress up in disguises and go undercover, working in Brooklyn and the Bronx to expose racketeering.

Frank looked up to the police while growing up, and he always wanted to become a cop because he truly wanted to help people - he likened such a duty to superheroes, fighting crime and saving innocent people from the "bad guys". But Frank had a rude awakening when he realized just how many of his fellow policemen were in league with the "bad guys" and were actually "bad guys" themselves. In his 2014 article written for Politico.com, "The Police Are Still Out of Control", Frank wrote:
It still strikes me as odd that I'm seen as a renegade cop and unwelcome by police in the city I grew up in. Because as far back as I can remember, all I wanted to be was a member of the NYPD. Even today, I love the police life. I love the work.

I grew up in Brooklyn, and shined shoes in my father's shop when I was a kid. My uncle was a member of the carabinieri in Italy, and when I was 13 my mother took me to see my only surviving grandparent, her father. So I met her brother the carabinieri, who was in civilian clothes but carried a Beretta sidearm. I just marveled at the respect and dignity with which he did his work, and how people respected him. My father, a World War I POW, also in his early years contemplated being a carabinieri, but he had his shoe-repair trade and became a craftsman. As a young boy I had no idea. All I knew was that I was impressed by my uncle's behavior. This guy could open doors.

It wasn't that I was completely naïve about what bad cops could be. As a boy of 8 or 9, returning home one evening after shining shoes on the parkway, I saw a white police officer savagely beating a frail black woman with his night stick as she lay prostrate on a parkway bench. She didn't utter a sound. All I could hear was the thud as the wood struck her skin and bones. (I was reminded of that 70-year-old incident recently when an Internet video showed a white police officer pummeling a black woman with his gloved fist in broad daylight — have police tactics really changed?)

But I also saw the good side of cops....

[...]

I wasn't naive when I entered the force as a rookie patrolman on Sept. 11, 1959, either. I knew that some cops took traffic money, but I had no idea of the institutionalized graft, corruption and nepotism that existed and was condoned until one evening I was handed an envelope by another officer. I had no idea what was in it until I went to my car and found that it contained my share of the "nut," as it was called (a reference to squirrels hiding their nuts; some officers buried the money in jars buried in their backyards). Still, back then I was naive enough to believe that within the system there was someone who was not aware of what was going on and, once informed, would take immediate action to correct it.
His partners were periodically taking bribes from the very drug dealers and gangsters they were supposed to be busting, and they would offer Frank his cut, which he refused to take. Because of this, Frank became suspicious to his fellow officers, who feared he would blow the whistle on their dealings. They didn't trust him.

In 1967 Frank began to report credible evidence of widespread systematic police corruption to no avail - no one would do anything about it, and chances are most of the NYPD had already sold out and would not help him. It wasn't until he met another police officer, David Durk, that Frank received help in exposing this corruption. Frank became paranoid that his partners knew about his secret meetings with police investigators. Soon after he contributed to an April 25, 1970, New York Times front-page story on widespread corruption in the NYPD, which prompted Mayor John V. Lindsay to appoint a five-member panel to investigate the charges, which became the Knapp Commission, named after its chairman, Whitman Knapp.

In doing so, Frank pissed off a lot of corrupt cops, including his own partners. What happened next is best described in his own words, summed up in his article:
In the opening scene of the 1973 movie "Serpico," I am shot in the face—or to be more accurate, the character of Frank Serpico, played by Al Pacino, is shot in the face. Even today it's very difficult for me to watch those scenes, which depict in a very realistic and terrifying way what actually happened to me on Feb. 3, 1971. I had recently been transferred to the Narcotics division of the New York City Police Department, and we were moving in on a drug dealer on the fourth floor of a walk-up tenement in a Hispanic section of Brooklyn. The police officer backing me up instructed me (since I spoke Spanish) to just get the apartment door open "and leave the rest to us."

One officer was standing to my left on the landing no more than eight feet away, with his gun drawn; the other officer was to my right rear on the stairwell, also with his gun drawn. When the door opened, I pushed my way in and snapped the chain. The suspect slammed the door closed on me, wedging in my head and right shoulder and arm. I couldn't move, but I aimed my snub-nose Smith & Wesson revolver at the perp (the movie version unfortunately goes a little Hollywood here, and has Pacino struggling and failing to raise a much-larger 9-millimeter automatic). From behind me no help came. At that moment my anger got the better of me. I made the almost fatal mistake of taking my eye off the perp and screaming to the officer on my left: "What the hell you waiting for? Give me a hand!" I turned back to face a gun blast in my face. I had cocked my weapon and fired back at him almost in the same instant, probably as reflex action, striking him. (He was later captured.)

When I regained consciousness, I was on my back in a pool of blood trying to assess the damage from the gunshot wound in my cheek. Was this a case of small entry, big exit, as often happens with bullets? Was the back of my head missing? I heard a voice saying, "Don' worry, you be all right, you be all right," and when I opened my eyes I saw an old Hispanic man looking down at me like Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan. My "backup" was nowhere in sight. They hadn't even called for assistance—I never heard the famed "Code 1013," meaning "Officer Down." They didn't call an ambulance either, I later learned; the old man did. One patrol car responded to investigate, and realizing I was a narcotics officer rushed me to a nearby hospital (one of the officers who drove me that night said, "If I knew it was him, I would have left him there to bleed to death," I learned later).

The next time I saw my "back-up" officers was when one of them came to the hospital to bring me my watch. I said, "What the hell am I going to do with a watch? What I needed was a back-up. Where were you?" He said, "F*** you," and left. Both my "back-ups" were later awarded medals for saving my life.
Was Frank set up by his partners? He wasn't sure, but what's clear is that they certainly left him to die. The shot didn't ring out until he briefly turned away to find that his partners were not backing him up as they promised, leading to suspicions that he was set up and brought to the apartment to be murdered. But no official investigation ever took place. He continues:
Excerpt from The New York Times front page, April 25, 1970

From The New York Times front page, April 25, 1970
I still don't know exactly what happened on that day. There was never any real investigation. But years later, Patrick Murphy, who was police commissioner at the time, was giving a speech at one of my alma maters, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and I confronted him. I said, "My name is Frank Serpico, and I've been carrying a bullet in my head for over 35 years, and you, Mr. Murphy, are the man I hold responsible. You were the man who was brought as commissioner to take up the cause that I began — rooting out corruption. You could have protected me; instead you put me in harm's way. What have you got to say?" He hung his head, and had no answer.

Even now, I do not know for certain why I was left trapped in that door by my fellow police officers. But the Narcotics division was rotten to the core, with many guys taking money from the very drug dealers they were supposed to bust. I had refused to take bribes and had testified against my fellow officers. Police make up a peculiar subculture in society. More often than not they have their own moral code of behavior, an "us against them" attitude, enforced by a Blue Wall of Silence. It's their version of the Mafia's omerta. Speak out, and you're no longer "one of us." You're one of "them." And as James Fyfe, a nationally recognized expert on the use of force, wrote in his 1993 book about this issue, Above The Law, officers who break the code sometimes won't be helped in emergency situations, as I wasn't.
Even after being shot in the face for speaking out, and surviving, Frank bravely decided to testify in front of the Knapp Commission anyway in October and December of 1971. He was the first police officer in history to blow the whistle on police corruption in the NYPD, and launched the biggest investigation of any police force in the history of the United States. As a result, many officers were prosecuted and many more lost their jobs. Afterward, Frank obviously made a lot of enemies. He moved to Switzerland to recuperate and spent almost a decade living there, and then on a farm in the Netherlands with his last wife Marianne (who died of cancer in 1980), as well as traveling and studying, before returning to the U.S. In his testimony, Frank had this to say:
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. I was made to feel that I had burdened them with an unwanted task. The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist... in which an honest police officer can act... without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers. Police corruption cannot exist unless it is at least tolerated...at higher levels in the department. Therefore, the most important result that can come from these hearings... is a conviction by police officers that the department will change. In order to ensure this... an independent, permanent investigative body... dealing with police corruption, like this commission, is essential...
Frank believed the Knapp Commission was essential because when the police "investigated" themselves they were actually sweeping the corruption under the rug. Too many people on the force were benefiting from the cash flow and there was no accountability, so an external investigative body of honest people was necessary.
1971, Frank Serpico, then a detective, testified before the Knapp Commission.

Frank Serpico testifying before the Knapp Commission in 1971.

The Blue Wall of Silence


Unfortunately, this atmosphere "in which an honest police officer can act... without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers" still does not exist today. To speak out against fellow officers automatically ostracizes the "good cop" and could even endanger his or her life, so few ever blow the whistle and, instead, simply turn a blind eye or keep their mouths shut even if the corruption does bother them.

Frank did receive a Medal of Honor, the highest award in the NYPD for bravery in action, but it was unceremoniously handed to him "like an afterthought, like tossing me a pack of cigarettes" he often says, and without a proper certificate, which he still hasn't received to this day. And although living Medal of Honor winners are invited to the yearly award ceremony, Frank has only been invited once. It seems the Blue Wall of Silence is very much still in place. Yet to this very day, Frank is still speaking out. He writes: "So my personal story didn't end with the movie, or with my retirement from the force in 1972. It continues right up to this day. And the reason I'm speaking out now is that, tragically, too little has really changed since the Knapp Commission". The Commission disbanded in 1972, although he had hoped it would become permanent.

While watching the new Netflix series, "Marvel's Daredevil", which takes place in Hell's Kitchen in NYC, I saw this Blue Wall of Silence excellently portrayed in a single piece of dialogue in which Frank Serpico is mentioned:
Sgt. Brett Mahoney: The way things are going around here, I'm thinking about taking an early pension. Move my mom somewhere warm.

Matt Murdock: Be a shame. The only cop on the force we know for sure is honest.

Sgt. Brett Mahoney: Never see Serpico? Honest cops are usually the ones that get shot in the face.
In the series, Daredevil is up against his famous adversary, King Pin, who has almost the entire police force in his pocket. I noticed a similar theme in Fox's new series "Gotham", in which Jim Gordon plays a Serpico-like cop trying to weed-out corruption from the GCPD to his own detriment.

Frank says he actually met many officers who were inspired to become cops after seeing the movie "Serpico" at an early age, but that "in the NYPD that means little next to my 40-year-old heresy, as they see it. I still get hate mail from active and retired police officers." After his colleague David Durk (one of the few allies he had on the department) passed away, Serpico says the internet message board "NYPD Rant" had some choice messages directed at him:
"Join your mentor, Rat scum!" said one. An ex-con recently related to me that a precinct captain had once said to him, "If it wasn't for that f***in' Serpico, I coulda been a millionaire today." My informer went on to say, "Frank, you don't seem to understand, they had a well-oiled money making machine going and you came along and threw a handful of sand in the gears."
How many officers today feel the same anxiety that Frank did, and fear to speak out because of it?
...today the 'Blue Wall of Silence' endures in towns and cities across America. Whistleblowers in police departments — or as I like to call them, "lamp lighters," after Paul Revere — are still turned into permanent pariahs. The complaint I continue to hear is that when they try to bring injustice to light they are told by government officials: "We can't afford a scandal; it would undermine public confidence in our police." That confidence, I dare say, is already seriously undermined.

Things might have improved in some areas. The days when I served and you could get away with anything, when cops were better at accounting than at law enforcement — keeping meticulous records of the people they were shaking down, stealing drugs and money from dealers on a regular basis — all that no longer exists as systematically as it once did, though it certainly does in some places. Times have changed. It's harder to be a venal cop these days.

But an even more serious problem — police violence — has probably grown worse, and it's out of control for the same reason that graft once was: a lack of accountability.
Rise of the Police State

Today it seems cops can get away with whatever they want, and accountability only enters the picture in really extreme cases, such as Daniel Holtzclaw who was recently convicted of raping 13 women while wearing a badge. But you still have to wonder how many never get caught, or if they do, how many get away with it anyway, such as this scumbag.

Like Serpico said, an even more serious problem today is police violence and the lack of accountability regarding such violence. Frank writes:
I tried to be an honest cop in a force full of bribe-takers. But as I found out the hard way, police departments are useless at investigating themselves—and that's exactly the problem facing ordinary people across the country —including perhaps, Ferguson, Missouri, which has been a lightning rod for discontent even though the circumstances under which an African-American youth, Michael Brown, was shot remain unclear.

Today the combination of an excess of deadly force and near-total lack of accountability is more dangerous than ever: Most cops today can pull out their weapons and fire without fear that anything will happen to them, even if they shoot someone wrongfully. All a police officer has to say is that he believes his life was in danger, and he's typically absolved. What do you think that does to their psychology as they patrol the streets—this sense of invulnerability? The famous old saying still applies: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. (And we still don't know how many of these incidents occur each year; even though Congress enacted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act 20 years ago, requiring the Justice Department to produce an annual report on "the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers," the reports were never issued.)

It wasn't any surprise to me that, after Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, officers instinctively lined up behind Darren Wilson, the cop who allegedly killed Brown. Officer Wilson may well have had cause to fire if Brown was attacking him, as some reports suggest, but it is also possible we will never know the full truth—whether, for example, it was really necessary for Wilson to shoot Brown at least six times, killing rather than just wounding him. As they always do, the police unions closed ranks also behind the officer in question. And the district attorney (who is often totally in bed with the police and needs their votes) and city power structure can almost always be counted on to stand behind the unions.

In some ways, matters have gotten even worse. The gulf between the police and the communities they serve has grown wider. Mind you, I don't want to say that police shouldn't protect themselves and have access to the best equipment. Police officers have the right to defend themselves with maximum force, in cases where, say, they are taking on a barricaded felon armed with an assault weapon. But when you are dealing every day with civilians walking the streets, and you bring in armored vehicles and automatic weapons, it's all out of proportion. It makes you feel like you're dealing with some kind of subversive enemy. The automatic weapons and bulletproof vest may protect the officer, but they also insulate him from the very society he's sworn to protect. All that firepower and armor puts an even greater wall between the police and society, and solidifies that "us-versus-them" feeling.
18-year-old Jared Lemay after being mauled by a North Port police K-9

18-year-old Jared Lemay after being mauled by a North Port police K-9
And it's not just guns and armor. A recent and disturbing example came from North Port, Florida, where a police officer had a police dog chew up a suicidal 18-year-old boy's face and back inside his mother's garage where he was found hiding. This specific department has apparently been sicking their K-9's on suspects for sport, even bragging about "getting their bite". In another incident, a police K-9 was released on the wrong suspect and mauled his 17-month-old daughter inside of his SUV.

Aside from these recent cases of using a dog to inflict violence, police are also periodically killing other people's dogs. Every month I find myself reading a story and/or watching heartbreaking footage of a cop shooting someone's dog on their property. If so many police can't even subdue or handle a dog without killing it, what makes anyone think they'll stop shooting human beings? What is it about the way cops are trained today that they shoot first and ask questions later? Frank writes:
In the NYPD, it used to be you'd fire two shots and then you would assess the situation. You didn't go off like a madman and empty your magazine and reload. Today it seems these police officers just empty their guns and automatic weapons without thinking, in acts of callousness or racism. They act like they're in shooting galleries. Today's uncontrolled firepower, combined with a lack of good training and adequate screening of police academy candidates, has led to a devastating drop in standards. The infamous case of Amadou Diallo in New York—who was shot 41 times in 1999 for no obvious reason—is more typical than you might think. The shooters, of course, were absolved of any wrongdoing, as they almost always are. All a policeman has to say is that "the suspect turned toward me menacingly," and he does not have to worry about prosecution.
There's also the fact that many police have been training overseas with Israeli Defense Forces. It should be no surprise to us that cops are looking and behaving more and more like soldiers when they are learning tactics from a ruthless military force that systematically oppresses and murders countless Palestinians. What does it mean for us when police are training with soldiers and learning tactics for an "urban battlefield" and then coming back home to utilize these tactics on the streets against their own citizens? When these police return, who do you think they see as the "enemies" they are up against now? That's right, us! Like Frank said, this militarization walls them off from the very public they are sworn to protect and serve, creating an "us-versus-them" atmosphere, and further fueling police violence as well as public distrust of police. Another contributing factor to police violence may be the increasing number of cops who are using steroids, a symptom of which is aggression, or what is commonly called "roid rage".

In another article Frank wrote for Politico.com titled "When Cops Cry Wolf", he tells about how, for decades, cops have been setting up suspects with false testimony and planting weapons and drugs to justify their murders, and how they rarely even have to do this anymore because all they have to do is say they "felt threatened" or feared for their life and the killing becomes justified. Regarding this deliberate obscurantism, he writes:
I call it "testi-lying." It has been a regular practice in police forces across the United States, at least since I served on the NYPD: official testimony that is made part of a police after-action report but is a pure lie, an invention. In the old days police would carry a "drop gun" or a "drop knife"—an inexpensive weapon cops would bring along on patrol to drop onto or next to a suspect they had taken out so they could say he had threatened them. Today you don't even need to do that; all you have to do to justify the use of deadly force if you are a police officer is to say that you feared for your life, for whatever reason. If the victim dies, that just means there will be one less witness around to contradict the testi-lie.
One of the factors that can help turn the tides on police violence is the fact that most citizens are armed with smartphones and video-cameras these days. Many departments are also ordered to wear body-cameras and microphones, although Chicago police have recently been caught throwing their microphones on the roof of their department. So when the police are acting out, it is now more likely that it will be captured on film and immediately start making the rounds on the internet. A recent example of this is the cop who was caught pointing his rifle at a journalist and others at a demonstration in Ferguson, Missouri, and saying "Get back! I'll f***ing kill you!" When the journalist asks for his name, the officer responds with "Go f*** yourself!"
Now, in the era of citizen videotaping, police credibility is at stake as never before. If enough testi-lying is uncovered, then who is going to believe the police even when they are telling the truth? They will be seen as crying wolf.

Until now, the shoot-first-in-fear-of-my-life mantra has eliminated any cause for concern in the taking of life by police. When a civilian commits a crime, every nuance is looked at, the better to "throw the book at" the suspect. When cops err, it is the opposite reaction. Eyes are averted, aggravating circumstances are ignored. And now the public is learning about this every time a new videotape emerges that undermines the official police story.

There is only one solution: The good cops really have to step up, and the system needs to reward them, rather than punish them. The other day I got a letter from a journalist in Argentina who was complaining about police and judicial corruption there. I wrote back to him, there are good cops, even where you live, but if the good cops don't want to be painted with the same brush as the bad cops, they need to come forward and expose the guys who are doing bad things.

Instead, you habitually get police union representatives defending these police officers no matter what they do....

[...]

It's important to make the point that we shouldn't make cops feel that as a whole they're under attack. There are plenty of legitimate incidents where police believe, correctly, that their lives are in danger. I was in a few of those situations myself during the course of my career.

But unless the police forces and society as a whole take action we're not going to be able to distinguish between the legitimate claims and the made-up testimony. And this is not just police phenomenon; the law itself needs to be changed so that when a police officer shoots a suspect in the line of duty, a real investigation is conducted, and by an outside, impartial body.
What Can Be Done About It?

In his Politico article Frank gives a list of things that could be done to ameliorate police violence and corruption:
The sum total of all that experience can be encapsulated in a few simple rules for the future:

1. Strengthen the selection process and psychological screening process for police recruits. Police departments are simply a microcosm of the greater society. If your screening standards encourage corrupt and forceful tendencies, you will end up with a larger concentration of these types of individuals;

2. Provide ongoing, examples-based training and simulations. Not only telling but showing police officers how they are expected to behave and react is critical;

3. Require community involvement from police officers so they know the districts and the individuals they are policing. This will encourage empathy and understanding;

4. Enforce the laws against everyone, including police officers. When police officers do wrong, use those individuals as examples of what not to do - so that others know that this behavior will not be tolerated. And tell the police unions and detective endowment associations they need to keep their noses out of the justice system;

5. Support the good guys. Honest cops who tell the truth and behave in exemplary fashion should be honored, promoted and held up as strong positive examples of what it means to be a cop;

6. Last but not least, police cannot police themselves. Develop permanent, independent boards to review incidents of police corruption and brutality—and then fund them well and support them publicly. Only this can change a culture that has existed since the beginnings of the modern police department.
Serpico quote
Although he sees some hope that these guidelines can be implemented, it's a long haul, and until the few officers who are actually fed up with all of the trigger-happy cops, racist cops, rapist cops, and corrupt cops tarnishing their reputation, start banding together and speaking out against them and exposing them, there's little hope things will change. History shows us that when a militarized police is mobilized against the public without any accountability, it never turns out well. Will we learn our lesson before it's too late? With drone technology increasingly being used by police forces, and these police surveillance droids (K5 security bots) that have been recently proposed for use in California (which look like a cross between R2-D2 and a Dalek from Doctor Who) the future isn't looking too bright - in fact, it's looking rather Orwellian.

Frank is a true hero, and we can all take a page from his book in our daily lives by doing all we can to arm ourselves with knowledge of what's happening around us, and making an effort to speak up and oppose the atrocities committed by those in power. It would also be useful if more people studied and understood the subject of psychopathology, as it explains a lot about how institutions that wield power, like the police and government, can become a nesting ground for individuals who literally have no conscience. Until we develop techniques of screening for such individuals and weeding them out of our societal institutions, there is little hope for improving the state of the entire world, not just law enforcement.

On that note, I'll give Frank the last word here:
Law enforcement agencies need to eliminate those who use and abuse the power of the law as they see fit. As I said to the Knapp Commission 43 years ago, we must create an atmosphere where the crooked cop fears the honest cop, and not the other way around. An honest cop should be able to speak out against unjust or illegal behavior by fellow officers without fear of ridicule or reprisals. Those that speak out should be rewarded and respected by their superiors, not punished.

We're not there yet.
Americans Who Tell the Truth

Painting of Serpico from Robert Shetterly's Americans Who Tell the Truth series.

"A policeman’s first obligation is to be responsible to the needs of the community he serves…The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which an honest police officer can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers. We create an atmosphere in which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer, and not the other way around."