Former NYPD officer Frank Serpico, the ultimate Renegade PoPo
by Allen R. Kates, MFAW, BCECR
For those of you who are a little hazy on who Frank Serpico is and what he did, he was one of America's first whistleblowers. In October and December of 1971, when he testified about massive corruption in the New York Police Department before the Knapp "Commission to Investigate Alleged Police Corruption," he was the first police officer in the history of the department to openly speak out.
Never was there a more reluctant spokesman than Frank Serpico. He never wanted to stand out. He only wanted to do his job and be one of the guys. But when the guys repeatedly offered him bribes, payoffs or favors from drug dealers and mobsters, and would not take no for an answer, Serpico decided to say something. (continued below, left)
All his life, Serpico wanted to be a police officer. At the age of 18, he joined the United States Army and served two years in Korea. At 23, he joined the NYPD on September 11, 1959. That was a proud day and a realization of his dreams. But for the next 13 years, he was prodded and pushed and provoked into an action he didn't want to take. He did not want to be a whistleblower.
Played By The Rules
First, he played by the rules. He went to department supervisors to report what was going on. He told them that police officers were accepting bribes, letting criminals go, actively helping them, divulging secret information that resulted in witnesses being killed, stealing drug money, and actually committing murder.
For four years, starting in 1967, Serpico tried to get action from high-level police and political officials. He named names and revealed places and dates of payoffs and other criminal activities. There were lots of promises to look into his allegations, yet nothing happened. He put himself at risk for ignoring the Blue Wall of Silence, as the wall had leaks and whispers and everyone knew he was ratting on them.
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The corrupt officers called him a snitch, a lowlife and a traitor. The department's supervisors painted him as a malcontent, a nut, a weirdo, a hippie and a freak.
The New York Times
Getting no help from the department, his life in jeopardy, Serpico went to The New York Times to tell his story, and on April 25, 1970, he became Front-Page news. This unassuming cop who only wanted to do his job and stay in the background was now bigger than life and a marked man.
Shot and Left For Dead
As hoped, the article embarrassed the department and forced Mayor John V. Lindsay to form the Knapp Commission. What happened next was predictable. On February 3, 1971, eight months before he was to testify, Frank Serpico went on a drug bust on Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He was not supposed to return.
The night before, his partner called in sick. Serpico went out on the operation on his own. The department did not provide him with proper backup and a drug dealer shot him in the face. Bleeding, calling for help, an elderly tenant in the building cradled him and called 9-1-1 while his fellow officers did nothing. It's a miracle that he survived. And to this day bullet fragments are still lodged near his brain. As a result of the shooting, he is deaf in his left ear and has nerve damage in his left leg.
Despite his injuries, Serpico testified against the cops who saw their job as a way to get rich. At the hearing, among other things, he said that, "the atmosphere does not exist in which an honest police officer can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers."
At the time that Serpico was talking to the Administration, he feared for his life. After he was shot, and then testified, he knew it was only a matter of time before he was murdered. So he left the United States to live in Europe for a number of years.
Nightmares Even Today
Even today, Serpico has nightmares about that harrowing time. He remembers the shooting and the aftermath as if were yesterday, playing itself over and over again in his mind. Around 1980, he returned to the United States and traveled around like a nomad in his camper. Now he lives in a cabin in the woods near the Hudson River north of New York City, and won't tell anybody specifically where he lives.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) did not become an official disorder until 1980 and it was applied mostly to military personnel, not to cops. Before long, police officers were being diagnosed at an alarming rate.
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PTSD is characterized by nightmares, flashbacks, anger, concentration problems, emotional detachment and avoidance of people and places. (CopShock, second edition, 2008. Pages 53-58)
Having been shot, with his life in constant jeopardy, it's likely that Serpico developed PTSD symptoms to a degree. During his travels, he sought healing and perspective, and has found them through nature, solitude and organic, vegetarian food.
It's also likely that many of the officers involved in corruption had PTSD from experiencing or witnessing events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury. One of the symptoms of PTSD is "hypervigilance." Hypervigilant officers can sometimes become so hyperaware, drugged by adrenaline, suspicious, anxious and cynical, that they cease to differentiate between the good and the bad guys. To them, everybody is the bad guy, so why not steal from them? Why not coerce bribes? Why not kill?
As mentioned earlier, Serpico never wanted to become a whistleblower. And that's all the more reason for us to honor him. He never sought attention, glory, fame or fortune. He would have been quite happy to remain anonymous, and taking pride in his job as his only reward.
Serpico's Impact On Other Police Officers
Which leads us to the question: What impact has Serpico had on other police officers? What impact has he had on society as a whole?
The New York Police Department claims that it has made many changes as a result of Serpico's testimony to the Knapp Commission. That may be so, but are they substantive changes or just window dressing?
Adrian Schoolcraft Case
A recent case in point: Adrian Schoolcraft was a proud member of the NYPD. He learned that supervisors in the 81st Precinct were faking crime statistics as early as 2005 and downgrading felonies to misdemeanors to make themselves look good. In addition, they encouraged officers to arrest people who had not committed a crime in order to meet quotas. To protect himself, he began taping his meeting with administrators and fellow cops.
He taped hundreds of hours, and in May 2010, he release the tapes to the Village Voice. In retaliation, the NYPD sent officers to his home where they cuffed him and dragged him out the door, and had him involuntarily and unjustly committed for psychiatric evaluation to a hospital. Not surprisingly, they also suspended him. Consequently, he filed a $50 million dollar civil rights lawsuit against the city. A judge ruled that the lawsuit was valid, and it is presently making its way through the courts.
What does the Adrian Schoolcraft affair tell us? That things have not changed enough in the NYPD, and perhaps Schoolcraft is picking up where Serpico left off. But it is clear that Serpico gave Schoolcraft the inspiration that he could succeed at exposing wrongdoing in the department they both used to love.
Serpico's influence goes beyond the New York Police Department. What he did has affected workers in every industry. they have come to believe that they, too, have a moral and legal obligation to expose consumer fraud and dangers, as well as corporate swindles and malfeasance. You may wonder just what effect Serpico has had on big business whey you look at the crimes Enron, WorldCom, Bernard Madoff and others have perpetrated.
But there are many, just like Serpico, who said they could not stand by and do nothing in the face of lies and corruption.
Here are just a few examples:
Daniel Ellsberg released government documents to the
press in June 1971 that became known as the Pentagon Papers, and
revealed how the public had been misled over the U.S. military's
effectiveness in Vietnam.
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Karen Silkwood claimed in 1974 that her employer, a
plant that produced plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods, had
falsified its safety records and that fuel rods were improperly
In 1996, Jeffery Wigand, a tobacco researcher, blew the whistle on fraudulent practices in the tobacco industry.
Richard A. Clarke
Starting in January, 2001, Richard A. Clarke, a counter-terrorism coordinator for the Bush administration, repeatedly warned the Secretary of State and various agencies that al-Qaeda was planning a monstrous attack on the United States, but he was ignored. During the March 2004 hearings on the September 11, 2001, attack on America, Clarke criticized the Bush administration and was the only government official to apologize to the family members of victims for the government's failure to heed the warnings. After that, he was vilified and condemned by government officials an they all ran for cover.
Joseph C. Wilson & Valerie Plame
How can we forget the price Diplomat Joseph C. Wilson paid for telling the truth? In February 2001, the CIA sent him to Niger to find proof that Saddam Hussein was purchasing enriched yellowcake uranium in order to make a nuclear bomb. But Wilson reported back that there was no proof. Nevertheless, in 2003 President Bush announced to the nation that Saddam was indeed buying the uranium, and in March the United States attacked Iraq. In July, Wilson spoke out in The New York Times about the error (lies?) in President Bush's speech.
As retribution, a week later, Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, an undercover operative for the CIA, was outed to the press, and some of her contacts were murdered as a result.
Russell Tice reported to the press in 2006 that his employer was conducting warrantless wiretapping in a secret room.
Whistleblowers Intimidated and Threatened
Obviously, none of these whistleblowers, including Serpico and Schoolcraft, had an easy time of it. They were harassed, followed, intimidated, threatened, and in the case of Karen Silkwood, she died mysteriously in an unlikely one-person car crash.
Why did they do it? Why did these down-to-earth people become whistleblowers?
Why did Frank Serpico become one?
Frank Serpico Changed a Pervasive Culture of Corruption
Professor Francis Petit, Associate Dean for Executive MBA Programs at Fordham University's Graduate School of Business Administration, believes he knows why Frank Serpico has become an American icon. "What Executives Can Learn From Frank Serpico" is the title of a paper he wrote that was published in the Journal of Business Case Studies, September/October 2011, Volume 7, Number 5.
In this enlightening study, he states that Serpico "as a result of his actions, subsequently forever changed the pervasive culture of corruption within the department." (p29) Dr. Petit looked into the themes in Frank Serpico's career and life that would benefit professionals and executives in any profession. Here are his remarkable conclusions:
1. Upheld His Own Moral Compass
Dr. Petit states that there are four themes that emerged from his research. The first theme is that Serpico "upheld his own moral compass." The researcher suggests that Serpico did not and could not accept the payoffs and bribes because they offended his sense of morality and justice. He states, "It was also apparent... that Frank Serpico was an individual who stood by the mission of the New York Police Department and would not sway or violate that mission at any cost." (p31)
2. Serpico Had An Innovative Mindset
Secondly, Dr. Petit says that Serpico had "an innovative mindset." By their nature, large organizations like the NYPD "stifle any form of creative and innovative thinking." However, "Frank Serpico was an innovator within his profession." Serpico employed disguises, costumes and techniques that allowed him to infiltrate high crime areas surreptitiously and arrest perpetrators. He was a "creative 'outside the box' thinker who was not afraid to experiment, and even fail, in order to increase effectiveness." (p32)
3. The Power of Uniqueness
The third theme that emerged from Serpico's career is what Dr. Petit calls "the power of uniqueness." Unlike most police officers, Frank Serpico learned multiple languages such as Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, Arabic and Russian, and enjoyed the opera, ballet and theater. He had "an intense cultural mindset." Dr Petit says that Frank Serpico's "uniqueness had a positive impact on the NYPD as he questioned established norms and tried to find a better way to operate." (p32)
4. Power of Vocation
The fourth theme Dr. Petit investigated is Frank Serpico's "power of vocation." Serpico recognized his desire to be a New York City police officer at an early age and he pursued his direction "with passion, intensity and integrity." The professor says that that helped define "who he was and who he is today." (p32)
A Man of His Time
This next statement of Dr. Petit's sums up poignantly why Frank Serpico would inevitably speak up if he saw corruption or injustice.
and instant gratification, it was apparent that Frank Serpico did not follow this
routine as this could have been achieved through corrupt and unethical behavior.
Rather, Frank Serpico understood his vocation and did not violate it at any cost for
short-term monetary rewards."
People have often referred to Theodore Roosevelt affectionately as "a man of his time." They called Abraham Lincoln "a man for all times." Like them, Frank Serpico was a man of his time, standing up against corruption. Today he is a man of his time again, and we need him more than ever.
Like honest Abe, Francesco Vincent Serpico is a man for all times.
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