Frank Serpico was awarded the NYPD's Medal of Honor for his work in exposing internal corruption and malfeasance in the department. He was, however, vilified by many fellow officers for being willing to break the "code of silence" by which cops protected themselves and their colleagues. Resentment against him from some officers continues to this day. The book "Serpico" by Peter Maas, and the 1973 movie based on it starring Al Pacino, depicted his struggle.
Some years ago, A&E filmed an episode of its "Biography" series about Serpico's life and work, and what it cost him. If you have the time, it's worth watching. Compare and contrast his behavior with that of some other officers recently accused of misconduct, even murder. There's a very visible difference in attitude.
Serpico recently gave an in-depth interview to Foreign Policy magazine concerning the current state of policing in the USA. Here's an excerpt.
Now 84, Serpico lives quietly outside Albany, New York, but he remains vocal in speeches, articles, and activist campaigns pushing for police reform. And Serpico says Americans are still fighting the same fundamental problem today that he struggled with as a young cop who refused to take bribes in New York during the 1960s and early ’70s: a near-total lack of accountability over abuses. Then as now, Serpico says, police departments have proved incapable of investigating themselves, and district attorneys typically look the other way, fearful of offending the politically powerful police unions.
In recent weeks, that problem exploded into worldwide furor once again after a white Minneapolis police officer was videoed casually suffocating a handcuffed black man, George Floyd, to death. Many experts said that had it not been for the video, the officer, Derek Chauvin—who was later fired and charged with second-degree murder—would likely still be on the Minneapolis police force. Serpico notes that there is a tragic continuum here: Much as police abuses today are being exposed only by citizen bystanders with cell phones, his only recourse 50 years ago was to go to the New York Times after he discovered that the NYPD was incapable of investigating itself and the city government wouldn’t act. Now, with Congress and state and local legislators finally confronting the problem of accountability and abuse by proposing new legislation, Serpico says there may be hope at last—but there’s a long way to go. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: Were you surprised by the reaction to George Floyd’s killing?
Frank Serpico: The fuel has been pooling for decades—the Floyd thing was the spark that ignited it. It had gone too far, too long. Police corruption is endemic. It’s been there since the beginning of policing, when police officers had to buy their jobs. What is happening now is also a manifestation of that corruption. Brutality is police corruption. This is a window of opportunity to have some police officers finally see that, hey, we have inherited the sins of our brothers and it behooves us now to do something about it. I’m in touch with police all over the country and the world. Until now all my communications have been about whistleblowers and corruption and how the whistleblower almost always becomes the victim. The problem is that in most cases the agencies they go to in order to tell them about wrongdoing inside or outside the department respond along the lines of: If we did this [prosecuted police officers], we would undermine the stability of society. Or they say, “We can’t afford a scandal. It would undermine public confidence in our police.” But what we’re seeing now is that it already has been undermined.
FP: The reaction has been even greater and more intense—certainly more global—than five or six years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement erupted after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner was suffocated by a New York police officer. Garner, like Floyd, cried out, “I can’t breathe,” before he died.
FS: I think what drove it home this time, as didn’t happen with Eric Garner, is this was so in your face. It was all there on video: One human being slowly killing another helpless human being. It really went beyond the pale. So hopefully the movement continues. We had the coronavirus, which is still ongoing, a lot of people losing their jobs, and the boil burst. It was the perfect storm. I feel that the coronavirus is equivalent to police corruption. We have this virus among us, and we don’t know who has it. Police corruption too is a virus.
FP: The international reaction has been extraordinary, don’t you think?
FS: It’s called solidarity. Because people are fed up around the world. Look at what’s happening with the police in Turkey, where they’re shooting at these communities. It’s about poverty in these communities, desperation. What has to be addressed is this economic disparity in the country and the world. We’re wasting so much money on BS technology that would be better used to fix this problem.
FP: How much of this has to do with racism, plain and simple?
FS: There is something in the culture that is unmistakably racist. I don’t know how many white guys there are out there, in whatever position, who wake up every day and say, “What am I going to do today to fight racism?” And I bet just about every black man wakes up and says, “Jeez, am I going to get my ass beat today?” A lot of people of color have PTSD over this, whether white people, especially cops, understand that or not. They panic at the sight of the uniform. It’s almost become part of their DNA. When I was a cop, I was working one day with this white guy, and we got a complaint to investigate. We go to the scene, and there’s a white man and a black man. My partner says to the white man, “What’s the problem?” And the black guy says, “I’m the one that called.” He was automatically suspect, because of the color of his skin. That’s one reason why black communities are so frightened and angry.
There's much more at the link. Highly recommended reading.
As I've said before, if it comes to demonstrating against police misconduct - which is so appallingly clear in a number of recent incidents - I entirely support the current public protests. I'd willingly join them myself if I lived in the affected areas. I do not, however, support those who are using them as an excuse to riot, a springboard for violence and crime, and exploiting them for political purposes. Rioters and thugs are as much criminals as those against whose misconduct the protests are aimed, and need to be stopped just as much, if not more so.
Nevertheless, let's at least have the courage to admit that we do have a police bias problem in America, and we do have a police culture that tends to cover up misconduct rather than confront it and root it out. It's not universal, but it is pretty widespread, and needs to be addressed. Only when we accept that can we begin to do anything effective about dealing with it.
(Dealing with it, of course, will have to include de-militarizing the police function, and getting rid of disastrous overreaches such as the so-called "War on Drugs" which "broke policing", to quote the Cato Institute. I've pointed out many police excesses on this blog, as have other bloggers (for example, here). That doesn't make us anti-police as a whole: it means we're pro-good-police, anti-bad-police. We need to return to policing based upon a social contract, as advocated by Sir Robert Peel in his famous "Peelian Principles". We've drifted dangerously far from those precepts, and it shows.)