Frank Serpico Tells How Some Police Are “Still Out of Control” in Recent Politico Article

Frank Serpico

Frank Serpico

By Elaine Magliaro

NOTE: I want to thank Michael Beaton for calling my attention to the Politico article titled The Police Are Still Out of Control, which was written by police whistleblower Frank Serpico.

ABOUT FRANK SERPICO

Frank Serpico–born on April 14, 1936, in Brooklyn, New York–became a New York City police officer in 1959.  He worked for the NYPD for 12 years. An honest cop and a whistleblower, he reported and exposed corruption within the police department. In 1971, Serpico testified before the Knapp Commission–aka the Commission to Investigate Alleged Police Corruption. He was disliked by fellow officers who did not come to his aid when he was shot during a 1971 drug raid.

From The New York Times:

Detective Serpico was an important informer against corruption in the police ranks who became a household name for blowing the whistle on graft in the New York City Police Department. He was not the only officer who spoke out against accepting free meals or money to protect the wrong people, but he was the most famous, in part because Al Pacino played him in the 1973 film version of Mr. [Peter] Maas’s book.

From Wikipedia:

Serpico still speaks out against police corruption brutality, the weakening of civil liberties, and corrupt practices in law enforcement, such as the alleged cover-ups following Abner Louima’s torture in 1997 and the Amadou Diallo shooting in 1999.[13] He provides support for “individuals who seek truth and justice even in the face of great personal risk”. 

City Room: Watching ‘Serpico’ With Serpico

Excerpt from Frank Serpico’s article The Police Are Still Out of Control:

And 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.
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.

Click here to read the entire article.

In a 2010 New York Times article about Frank Serpico, Corey Kilgannon said that the former police officer was working “on his own version of the harrowing adventures chronicled by Peter Maas’s biography, which sold more than three million copies…” Kilgannon reported that the “memoir begins with the same awful scene as the film: Serpico shot in the face during a heroin bust on Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Feb. 3, 1971…”

Serpico Movie Trailer (1973)

 

SOURCES

The Police Are Still Out of Control: I should know. (Politico)

Serpico on Serpico (New York Times)

Frank Serpico Biography (Bio)

Frank Serpico (Wikipedia)

Peter Maas, Writer Who Chronicled the Mafia, Dies at 72 (New York Times)

 

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6 Responses to Frank Serpico Tells How Some Police Are “Still Out of Control” in Recent Politico Article

  1. If you are in the government and unless they want to take you down…. How can you be wrong.,.,

  2. Mike Spindell says:

    Elaine,

    When people talk about heroism, Frank Serpico was a hero in his time. He was shot by his own brother officers who couldn’t tolerate that he wouldn’t play their game and was outspoken against police corruption. Those who make excuses for police excess always seem to treat each new example as pristine, without a long history of police abuse behind it and so always seem to give the benefit of the doubt to the police. This is fine under our legal system if the same “benefit” was extended to the victim, but we find that all victims are vilified to justify the abuse they’ve suffered.

  3. blouise17 says:

    Thanks Elaine and Michael Beaton . This is an article well worth the time it takes to read and much of what it expresses line up with the concerns police officers have expressed to me in private conversations.

  4. buckaroo says:

    Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black

    — Robert F Kennedy 1968

  5. Elaine M. says:

    David Durk, Serpico’s Ally Against Graft, Dies at 77
    11/13/12
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/nyregion/david-durk-detective-who-exposed-police-corruption-dies-at-77.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

    Excerpt:
    David Durk, a New York police detective who with Officer Frank Serpico shattered the infamous blue wall of silence to expose widespread corruption in the city’s Police Department in the 1960s and ’70s, died on Tuesday at his home in Putnam County, N.Y. He was 77.

    The cause was cardiac arrest, his wife, Arlene, said. He had been treated for mesothelioma for the past two years, she said.

    An Amherst College graduate who studied law at Columbia University, Mr. Durk joined the Police Department in 1963. He imagined a life of public service, as he put it rosily years later, to help “an old lady walk the streets safely” and “a storekeeper make a living without keeping a shotgun under his cash register.”

    But what he found was a culture of corruption: of officers and superiors taking payoffs from gamblers, drug dealers, merchants and mobsters for protection and information, like the names of informers they wanted to kill; of officers stealing and dealing drugs, riding shotgun for pushers and intimidating witnesses.

    In precinct after precinct, Mr. Durk found cash “pads” — lists of payoffs from gamblers — with shares for officers, sergeants and higher-ups. And behind the corruption, he discovered, was a litany of unwritten rules amounting to a pervasive acceptance of the wrongdoing, even among those not on the take — a code of silence, called the blue wall, which was corroding morale.

    Mr. Durk refused to join in, and became a pariah. While he made many arrests and was promoted to detective sergeant, he was shuttled among assignments, often just to get rid of him.

  6. Garry says:

    This is the plight of governance today. They will do everything within their power to suppress any flak coming their way. It is no wonder that people like Serpico have to sacrifice a lot to stand up against these constitutional goons. You can’t trust anybody from the government, in fact you shouldn’t. For your own personal interest don’t. The ones who claim they are keepers of the law are actually, most often than not, the ones who bend it to their will. Corruption has become worse than ever. There is no honest cop anymore. The ones that were – like Serpico – are either dead or made sure by the authorities that they are. Terrible state of affairs! But men like Serpico, will stand up, and thus become heroes. Salute you Mr Serpico.

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