Frank Serpico was a New York City police officer during the 60s and 70s who fought against the disgusting levels of corruption. He made a huge mark on the NYPD that lasts even to this day.
Serpico was born in 1932 in Brooklyn, New York to parents Vincenzo and Maria Serpico. His family was relatively lower class with his parents having immigrated to New York from Italy. Maria worked in candy factories, while Vincenzo owned his own shoe repair shop. Frank’s family was a close family, and his parents were very attentive. His father was known to be a caring man.
Serpico can almost be described as a life-long cop. He seems to have spent most of his life standing up to bullies and villains. One time in his youth he had a toy gun stolen by a group of bullies at knifepoint. Instead of running away he decided to chase the bullies down. Unfortunately, he did not catch the boys. But this would teach him an important lesson that he would use throughout his life: justice was hard to come by.
Growing up in his working-class neighbourhood Serpico witnessed countless crimes throughout his youth. From watching vehicles being robbed to seeing a dead body out his window he witnessed the worst that crime could offer. But what really stuck with him throughout these crimes was the police. He saw the police as the good guys, the shining light compared to the criminal darkness. And he knew from this very young age that this would be his future.
However, an amazing distinction from Serpico and the image most have of the police is the role he believed they served. To Serpico, the police were not gun-toting bullies with badges. Instead, he felt the role of the police was to befriend and protect the weak. But this image was soon torn apart when he realised that some cops took advantage of their positions.
One particular moment that stands out was when a police officer came into Vincenzo’s shop for a shoe shine. Serpico polished the cop’s shoes until they showed a reflection, and then the cop walked out without paying. This stuck in Frank’s mind for the rest of his life.
Around the age of 14, Serpico entered Saint Francis Preparatory School. On his application to the school he was asked about his career goals. In the box Frank filled in “plainclothesman” obviously having already decided that this would be his future. Throughout his time at school he continued to fight against the injustices as he had always done. Once he graduated at 17, he then enlisted in the Army.
Serpico spent two years in the Army stationed in Korea. While there, he absorbed a lot of the Asian culture. By this time in his life, he was already fluent in French, Italian, and Spanish. This obviously not being enough, during his time in Korea he also decided to learn Japanese.
When he returned to the US he still had his sights set on becoming a cop. He enrolled in Brooklyn College studying police science and took the New York Police Department exam. For some extra experience he worked as a private investigator during his schooling.
In late 1959, he received word that he passed the police exam and was sworn in as a probationary officer. However, Serpico was naive about the culture of the NYPD. There was already a way of doing things, and he was about to find that out.
As it’s described, at this point in history the NYPD still had many officers who had grown up during the depression. Most of these officers had an idea of how things should be run. There was already a way of doing things, but his way of doing things didn’t exactly jive with Serpico. That is not the only time I will use the word “jive”.
Serpico had one goal: to be a good cop. And to him that meant helping the helpless and making sure justice always prevailed. He saw the role of the police as a critical role to society. They were the gatekeepers of justice to Serpico, and he took this very seriously. But the system just didn’t seem to agree with him.
He experienced this so-called “brotherhood” first-hand when he and a partner were sent to guard a synagogue that had been recently vandalised. As luck would have it, Serpico and his partner were able to arrest two suspects in the vandalism. To the two cops this was likely to be seen as a big deal. They were actually still in the police academy at this point, so they assumed they would receive an award that was referred to as a Mayor’s Trophy for the Best Arrest in the academy. But, although his actions were worthy of a citation, only if they slipped the clerk a bit of cash to do the paperwork. Hard work, it would seem, did not take you very far in the NYPD without a bit of money alongside it.
Apparently, there are two main ways to progress in the NYPD. First, you can make a ton of arrests. Or, you can pass a lot of tests. Serpico decided that he preferred arresting the bad guys to studying at his desk. When he was assigned to the 81st precinct in Brooklyn, he would annoy his lieutenant with the number of arrests he would bring in each night.
The way it is apparently supposed to work is that after you make an arrest you would go home for the night because you would be in court the next morning. But Serpico didn’t like that, so he would actually go back out on the street and make two or three arrests a night. His lieutenant was taking the test-taking route studying for captain, and all of these Serpico arrests weren’t jiving with his study time. So, even from his first assignments, Serpico was already butting heads with his bosses.
This butting of heads didn’t stop, either. He made an off-duty arrest at one point, and instead of being praised for his hard work he was brought in and grilled by the brass. He was asked why he was out in his precinct when he wasn’t on duty. The brass weren’t the only ones unhappy either; his fellow officers didn’t seem to like that he was enforcing the law even while off duty. But Serpico didn’t care, he was there to do his job and do it well; no matter how bad it made the other officers look.
Speaking of looking bad, that was another thing that really irked the other cops. Serpico had a very interesting style compared to other officers. It was the 60s in America and hippies were really hipping it up at this point. And, since Serpico’s unit sometimes patrolled in plain clothes, he thought it best if he was able to blend in. This didn’t sit well with the straight-laced cops that felt that they were being out-policed by a hippy.
With Frank’s odd appearance, it was decided that he should transfer to a plainclothes unit. You’ll remember that as a kid he had wanted this exact job. However, at this point he had seen the issues that the NYPD was facing and knew of the corruption pervading nearly every precinct. Apparently, the plainclothes units were meant to be the worst. Frank made this known to his current captain, but his captain shrugged it off saying, “Frank, no one can make you do anything you don’t want to do.” Although they sure were going to try.
When Serpico arrived at his new unit he was almost instantly met with corruption. But not only did he witness the corruption, his unit was trying hard to drag him into it. One of the biggest areas of corruption in the plainclothes units was the illegal gambling racket. The clubs would basically pay the cops to allow them to stay open. This obviously made the cops a ton of side cash, and they kept offering some to Serpico. But each time he would decline.
Finally, his unit had had enough of Frank’s abstinence and he was met in a parking garage one night when he was leaving the precinct. He wasn’t beaten up or anything, he was just forcefully handed an envelope with a large amount of cash in it. But this left Serpico with an ultimatum: he either had to rat out the other cops or he had to keep the cash. Frank’s principles were too strong, so he decided to report the officer to his captain. But what he found out was that his captain not only knew about the money, he had actually sanctioned the cop’s actions of forcing the cash on Serpico. Basically, everyone in this precinct was completely dirty.
After reporting it to his captain, he decided to report it to his close sergeant. But his sergeant just smiled, took the envelope, put it in his pocket and thanked Serpico. To which Frank walked away, absolutely disgusted.
At this point, Frank was being beaten down by the corruption and he truly wanted to do something about it, but he couldn’t find a way to do it. So, he just kept getting offered bribes and he kept refusing until he was transferred to another precinct in the Bronx.
This precinct was squeaky clean. Like something out of Paw Patrol. Just kidding, Frank was offered a bribe pretty much his first day. However, something was a bit different to this precinct. The cops were more forceful and serious about their bribes. When Serpico denied the bribes, he was actually starting to put himself in danger. But the other cops wouldn’t actually find out about him denying the bribes just yet.
Serpico’s partner, although he didn’t really trust Frank, saw an opportunity. Since Serpico didn’t want his cut, nobody would really miss it, would they? So he started to pocket Frank’s cut. The other cops had no clue until that partner transferred to another precinct. When Frank got a new partner and declined money from him as well, he actually surprised the hell out of the other cops. They had been under the impression that he was taking bribes for a full year. Obviously, the other cops were furious when they found out so Serpico was now in an even more dangerous position.
But you see, Frank didn’t want to be a whistleblower on the police, that’s why he hadn’t reported the issues any higher than his own captains. He just wanted the system to work like it was supposed to. He just wanted to be a good cop. At this point, Frank was in a bad place with the corruption. Almost feeling trapped. So he went to speak to a fellow detective that he trusted, David Dirk.
Dirk convinced Serpico to report the corruption to even higher ranking officers. Reluctantly, Frank did and he was actually promised change would come. But the change never seemed to come. It took two years for anything to actually come from Serpico and Dirk’s complaints. There was finally a single case of corruption investigated involving 8 plainclothes officers.
The investigators wanted Serpico to testify against the officers. Word about this spread very quickly, and he almost instantly started receiving death threats from other officers. Can you imagine receiving death threats from a cop?
But, again, Serpico’s principles were too strong, and he completely ignored the death threats and testified anyway. Which ended up putting all 8 officers in prison. Again, just kidding. Only the lower ranking officers were punished. Two went to prison and the other were forced to resign. Nothing happened to the higher ranking officers.
Obviously, and quite rightly, this completely infuriated Serpico. He had worked for so long to bring this corruption to light. He had given all the evidence necessary for multiple investigations. But only one was looked into, and only the lower ranks were punished. He wanted this punishment to go higher. But now, here he was, a cop known for ratting out other cops. Not only that, it was also known that him ratting out other cops actually rarely carried any punishment. I’ve said it multiple times, but this obviously put Serpico in an even more dangerous position.
He started wearing a gun at all times. Almost constantly on edge and growing more distant from the other officers. That’s when Frank met a higher ranking officer by the name of Dilys. The two became friends and Dilys agreed that he would be helping Frank fight against the NYPD corruption. Which would really come in handy now because Serpico was at the end of the line and decided it was time to take the story public.
Since all other options had failed up to this point, Serpico and Dirk felt it was best to take the story to the New York Times. This was a very big deal. It was two cops blowing the whistle on a huge corruption enterprise. Serpico, Dirk and Dilys all meet with the paper for a two hour meeting to tell all they know about the corruption.
The New York Times then goes and begins their research over the course of around 6 months. It’s uncovered that the plainclothes squads around New York were all acting as a regulatory body of the illegal gambling rings. They were in on every single gambling club. This amounted to millions of dollars of bribe money being paid out every single year just to cops.
When this story breaks, it’s huge. You can actually read the story on the New York Times website. It’s very interesting. It goes into so much detail about how corrupt the police really were. One story that stood out to me in the article was of a girl that had an overdose. I’ll quote the article here, but it doesn’t say who this quote came from. It could likely have come from Serpico himself.
“I remember one time we went on a call,” a Brooklyn policeman said. “A girl had tried to commit suicide by tak ing an overdose of pills. Three patrol cars responded and there were six of us standing around this little one‐room apartment, the girl lying there, just breathing.
“One of the guys walked over to her dresser and scooped up a large handful of subway tokens and dropped them in his pocket. No one said a word. It killed me, but there was nothing to do. There was no sense telling the sergeant because he was part of the club.”
A few things came from the New York Times article. The current police commissioner resigned, as you would hope. The mayor appointed a commission to investigate the matter called the Knapp Commission. And Serpico, he got transferred to narcotics. He was still, as you can imagine, still on everyone’s sh*tlist.
This story affected everyone. Not just the bad cops, but even honest cops, too. The image the story painted of the NYPD tarnished everyone, not just the corrupt. And if Serpico was in a bad position before, he was in a much worse position now. Because even honest cops wouldn’t mind seeing him dead.
In his new unit, Frank pretty much kept to himself most of the time while at work, unless he had to go on a call. It’s odd that a cop would be in the most danger when out with his partners, but that’s exactly what Serpico’s life was, and this is when things went wrong.
While working in narcotics, Frank was on a drug bust with two other cops. They were observing a drug dealer at his apartment looking for an opportunity to arrest him. They witnessed the dealer make a sale to a druggy, so Serpico approached the dealers door. He knocked on the door, speaking Spanish, pretending to want to buy drugs. The dealer kept his door chained and refused to open it, so Serpico came forward and got wedged in the door. He noticed that the dealer had a gun so he tried to wrestle it away from him, but had trouble because he couldn’t move. Frank looked back at the other officers who hadn’t moved from their position. He asked for help, turned back towards the door, and was shot in the face.
Frank fell to the ground, blood pouring from the hole inches from his left eye. His partners did not call for help. A tenant of the building had heard the commotion and called the police. Serpico was thrown in the back of a squad car, blood still pouring from his face. He reached the hospital and was dragged inside. The nurse saw him and said, “No, this man is dead.” Until he started to mumble.
Serpico had survived the bullet to the face, but only by mere centimetres. Had the bullet gone too far right it would have paralysed him. Too far left and his carotid artery would have been served. Too far up and it would have lodged in his brain. He survived a bullet to the face from about 18 inches away. His survival was purely just luck.
Normally when a fellow cop is shot in the line of duty, other officers line up to donate blood to help save them. None of the NYPD showed up for Serpico.
As you can probably imagine, this incident destroyed Serpico’s view of the police. He no longer saw the NYPD as a total force for good. At least not in its current state. However, he did receive an award that he had always wanted: a gold detective shield. But it felt meaningless. Likely because it was just handed to him over the counter. He had no ceremonies, no honours for his bravery.
After surviving the shooting, Serpico was asked to speak at the Knapp Commission hearing. He did so and gave a rousing speech about the changes that were necessary in the NYPD. The Commission agreed and found an intense level of corruption in the NYPD which led to 10 years of complete overhaul and changes to help lower the levels of corruption in the force. Although Serpico himself says that there is still an enormous amount of problems in the NYPD, which may have even gotten worse. But that’s a story for another time.
Serpico left the force, and also the country. He moved to Europe to live for years where he met his wife. But unfortunately passed away at the age of 29 from cancer. Frank then travelled around the US and Europe for a while before settling in a cabin in upstate New York.
Serpico once described the NYPD as “10% honest, 10% corrupt, and 80% wish they were honest.” He fought corruption from the moment he entered the NYPD to the moment he left. And the entire time he was met with nothing from aggression and opposition. But he never gave up and eventually he toppled this enormous enemy. David versus Goliath. He was still shunned though. He was pushed aside from the NYPD. Society, it would seem, just wouldn’t allow Serpico to be what he always wanted to be: a good cop. And that it what’s truly unfortunate.
“Serpico” by Peter Maas