Frank Serpico—A Cop For Our Time

By Dr. Lorin Swinehart

Frank Serpico

 

On the evening of February 3, 1971, while conducting a routine drug raid, accompanied by fellow officers, New York City policeman Frank Serpico was shot in the face with a .22 long rifle slug while his arm was jammed in a doorway. According to Serpico and to civilians on the scene, his fellow officers did nothing to extract him from the doorway and did not issue an Officer Down call. It was left to a neighbor to summon an ambulance.

Forewarned by a suspect in an earlier case that his own people were out to get him, Serpico had asked, “Who? Italians?” only to be informed that, no, his fellow cops were out to silence him and get revenge for his outspoken role as a whistle blower uncovering layers of corruption and ineptitude in the NYPD of that era. 

Serpico had always been the cop to break the mold, to refuse to live down to the stereotypes of either the public at large or of his fellow officers. He preferred the performances of symphony orchestras, the ballet, the opera, the writings of Thoreau and the poetry of William Butler Yeats to the continual braggadocio of sexual exploits and team sports that typified squad room conversations.

Everything about him aroused the suspicion of his peers. Presaging such popular TV cop shows as Toma and Baretta, he developed elaborate disguises while working undercover to bust drug dealers and prostitution rings. Perhaps his most unique disguise was that of Antoine, a Belgian diamond merchant, but he would also appear as a utility worker, a rabbi, an Amish tourist, a beer salesman from Germany, a Spanish businessman, a hobo, a derelict, a wino, a street sweeper, a construction worker, even a British attorney. 

With his thick beard, jeans, sandals, love beads and intentionally shabby appearance, he appeared in a myriad of roles while serving on the “whore patrol”, arresting prostitutes and their pimps.

A crack shot on the police range and an accomplished martial artist, Serpico kept in top physical condition by running on the beach, practicing karate exercises, bicycling, riding horses, and working out in the gym. 

While serving as an infantryman in the US Army during the 1950’s, Serpico spent his leave time in Tokyo, where he learned Japanese. As a police officer, he found his language facility an asset, becoming fluent in Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, Arabic and Russian.

While off duty, Serpico earned a BA in sociology and vacationed in exotic locales like Mexico, Puerto Rico, Nova Scotia, once even joining a lady friend in Finland and subsequently another in Sweden. He shared a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village with his English sheep dog Alfie. He regularly visited specialty shops where he purchased only the best Polish sausages, cheese, salami, and Turkish coffee. Frank Serpico was a man of the world, a Renaissance man.

It was Serpico’s refusal to look the other way in the face of widespread corruption within the ranks of the NYPD that earned him the hatred of his fellow officers. From earliest boyhood, Serpico had been obsessed with becoming a cop.  At the academy, unlike many others, Serpico saw his future role not as a job but as a calling. An uncompromising idealist, Serpico believed in the depths of his soul that a policeman must exhibit stricter standards of conduct than civilians. He simply could not accept a world in which those standards were so blatantly violated.

Early on, as a uniformed patrolman, Serpico refused to accept free meals in restaurants or to engage in “cooping”, taking refuge from winter weather and sleeping while on duty, as many of his peers were doing.

While serving as a plainclothes man exposing racketeering in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan, Serpico became painfully aware of corruption among his peers and grew ever more determined to combat it. Superior officers and public officials, fearing a public backlash, were more interested in hushing up shakedowns, bribes and payoffs from illegal gambling operations than in closing them down.

Corruption was so rampant that many spoke openly of accepting “clean money” for overlooking less serious offenses like gambling and prostitution and minor traffic infractions, as opposed to “dirty money” from narcotics violations. Cops battled crime everywhere except among themselves. Omerta, an attitude of silence, lack of cooperation with authorities, and steadfast refusal to report illegal acts provided a “blue wall of silence” behind which corruption flourished. Omerta demands retaliation against informers, referred to as snitches or rats. Crooked cops began to treat Serpico as a rat, and threats were made against his life.

After years of frustration, as one official after another promised action but failed to deliver, Serpico went to the New York Times in 1970, contributing to a front page expose, causing Mayor John Lindsay to form the Knapp Commission to investigate corruption, prosecute offenders and establish guidelines for dealing with future violations.

My good friend, the editor of this publication, has shared with me his view that there is no human better than a good cop and none worse than a bad one. We hear more about bad cops than we do about good ones these days. Cops save lives every day, often at the risk of their own. Serpico believed that a cop’s job is to help people. Nearly all would agree. Still, the bad ones cannot be overlooked.

On July 26, 2017, Nurse Alex Wubbles was handcuffed, arrested and treated in the most savage manner by a Salt Lake City police officer after she properly refused to take a blood sample from an unconscious patient in the emergency room. The video of the incident was only released to the public on Thursday, August 31. Given that Nurse Wubbles had acted responsibly and ethically, following hospital policy and the law of the land, the incident is an embarrassment to all peace officers everywhere.  No one intervened.  Perhaps, as Thoreau says, they were all, “Too timid to risk themselves in the name of doing right.”

I have been privileged in the course of two careers to work alongside many police officers on all levels. Without exception, I have found them to be persons who exhibit the highest of ethical standards, courage, even temperament and professionalism. The Salt Lake City cop’s actions strike me as an aberration, albeit one that requires a firm response, and he has since been removed from duty.

Despite TV cop shows that portray police work as a series of ongoing gun duels rivaling those of the Western Front, 95% of all police officers on all levels never fire their weapons once during the entirety of their careers other than on the range.

The treatment accorded Nurse Wubbles was barbaric. Sad to say, all too many members of minority groups have suffered a similar fate at the hands of bullish officers. Dr. Ali S. Khan, formerly Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in charge of combatting biological warfare, tells in his recent book The Next Pandemic about how he was held in small windowless room and interrogated over and over for hours by police at the Chicago airport because he was brown skinned and had a “Muslim sounding name”.

US Senator Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican of African descent, reports that he was stopped by police seven times in 2016, sometimes for reasons as flimsy as driving a new car in the “wrong” neighborhood. Even more disturbing is the recent miscarriage of justice involving the acquittal of Arizona policeman Philip Brailsford who shot and killed the unarmed Daniel Shaver as he begged for his life.

Frank Serpico is now 81 and, following many years of exile in Switzerland and the Netherlands, lives in a tiny cabin in the upstate New York wilderness. As a consequence of his wound, he remains deaf in one ear and still carries bullet fragments in his head. He continues to receive hate mail and death threats. The only thing he ever wanted was to be a good cop, and bad cops took that away from him. Serpico’s “own people” did get him. Still, he paved the way for others, like those whom I have been privileged to know, to continue being good cops.

 

 

 

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