On February 3rd, 1971, detective Frank Serpico — immortalized by Al Pacino in the gritty 1973 cop drama Serpico — was shot in the face. The bullet pierced him under the eye and lodged in his jaw.
Just a year earlier, he had gone public with evidence of shocking corruption within the New York Police Department, humiliating the force and prompting Mayor John Lindsay to launch an investigation and public hearing. Serpico had knocked on a suspected drug dealer’s door, and the door cracked open — when he turned around to beckon to the other cops, expecting their backup, the dealer gunned him down. It’s possible that the other cops set him up, but no one knows for sure. What’s clear is that they left him at the scene as he pleaded for help and he’d probably have died if an elderly man hadn’t called for medics. Despite almost losing his life, he doesn’t have regrets. “I really did not have much of a choice. If I quit, it would have meant denying every principle I believed in,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It would have made a mockery of justice.”
Almost 50 years later, police corruption and violence has come under scrutiny like never before, with near-daily reminders, thanks to higher public awareness and the ubiquity of cell phones. Where previously, an abuse case like the Rodney King beating could be chalked up by authorities to “a few bad apples,” the proliferation of visible abuses has prompted calls for drastic systemic reform.
And Frank Serpico — who now goes by his given name, Francesco, a late-life revolt against the nuns who made him Americanize it to Frank — has a lot of wisdom to offer.
Serpico, 84, spoke to Rolling Stone from his home upstate New York in a series of emails and phone calls. He talks in a staccato Brooklynese, exactly what you’d expect from a hard-boiled detective from the New York City of yore. Fragments of the bullet are still in Serpico’s head and he apologizes for having a “short fuse,” due to PTSD and his brain injury. But he saves his acerbic commentary for those he deems deserving of harsh reviews. For Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo in particular, Serpico does not mince words. “They’re hypocrites, they go where their votes are. Anything to get them elected. They got egos beyond what a politician should have.”
Serpico says that little has changed since he exposed the so-called “Pad,” a ring of officers who conspired to shake down suspects for cash, brazen abuse that was an open secret in the department. “The Pad was so named because the names of criminals paying for immunity were actually kept on record in a pad, with the strict efficiency of a CPA [Certified Public Accountant],” Serpico tells Rolling Stone.
Serpico’s revelations pushed Mayor Lindsay to form the Knapp Commission, initially a five-member investigative committee that evolved into public hearings; Serpico and Sergeant David Durk testified, as did the victims of the shakedowns.
The Knapp Report found that corruption was rampant. Officers on the take were deemed “grass eaters” or “meat eaters”: the vegetarian version accepted gratuities to turn a blind eye to black market businesses like gambling joints. The more ambitious meat eaters shook down drug users, sex workers, and pimps, for hundreds of dollars. A year after Serpico took a bullet to the head, the commission recommended the commanders should be held accountable, improve screening, and change police attitudes. In his closing statement to the commission, Serpico called for a cultural shift that would promote good cops over bad.
In some ways, Serpico says, today’s police are worse. “The brutality and shootings with cover-ups have intensified, I think, partially due to the changeover from a revolver to semi-automatic weapons and lack of training for proper use, such as in the case of Amadou Diallo,” he says, referring to a 1999 shooting in which a West African immigrant in the Bronx was shot 41 times by the NYPD. “What has not changed, as I said in my closing statement at the Knapp hearings, is an atmosphere where the crooked cops would fear the honest cop, and not the other way around.”
Powerful police unions assure virtual immunity for serious abuses; the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent entity that investigates police abuse and recommends disciplinary action, is virtually ignored. The police commissioner has a final say on the punishment for wayward cops. Serpico says the culture of corruption goes up to the top. “It’s the judges, the District Attorneys, the Mayors, the Governors, the police commissioner, ” he says, adding that every president, Democrat or Republican, should have prioritized a commission to root out police misconduct. He also believes that schools should teach kids about police abuse in school as part of their regular curriculum. “You’ve got to reach people when they are young,” he says. “What I tell people is, we’re treading water in a cesspool. If you stop fighting you’re gonna go under.”
But he sees the potential for positive change. “We have to encourage young people,” he stresses. “This is really needed. Black Lives Matter — all these young people are seeing it. It’s being exposed, this police culture. A culture of cover up and brutality. Cops simply are not held to the same standards of the average person on the streets.”
The defund movement seeks to reallocate money spent on policing to social services. Serpico says he gets where the movement is going — and supports drastic changes to U.S. policing. “Social services and other institutions that can address social and public health problems better than the police is always a priority, especially with drug enforcement and non-violent, victimless offenses. Funding should also be used for better firearms training,” Serpico says. “Too much seeing of guns where they don’t [need] to exist.”
But he also worries it might backfire by not fully addressing the culture of law enforcement. “It’s not the individual cops — as bad as they are,” that’s the problem, he says. “It’s the culture. The police is a quasi-military organization — just state instead of federal — [meant] to enforce government edicts against the mostly poor and disenfranchised.” And critics of the movement understandably worry that if departments start to lose funding, they may react by trying to bleed it out of the community however they can. “If we defund it may lead to more quotas (which they claim don’t exist), petty enforcement, and fines to fill the coffers,” he warns.
U.S. police culture gets the role of law enforcement all wrong, he says. “Police fail to grasp that they are public servants for peace,” Serpico says. “They should provide a civil service, to enforce the laws equally, without bias and with discretion.”
“They must understand that they do not have immunity or special privileges and — most importantly — are just responsible for apprehending suspects, and should not act as judge, jury and executioner, which too many of them truly believe themselves to be,” he adds.
Instead, they’re encouraged to act like an occupying army. “The use of military hardware and body armor meant for combat in a war zone gives a feeling of being at war in our communities, and the enemy you must protect yourself against is naturally going to be the society you have sworn to protect and serve,” Serpico says.
Fifty years after he was shot in the face, Serpico — who has received his share of death threats over the years — doesn’t worry about speaking out. “I’m 84, why do I got to worry?” he says. He’s careful, but not scared of getting taken out for his breach of the blue wall. “I protect myself. But if my time has come, there’s no better way than taking out some crooked cops.”