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.
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. 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)
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)