Perhaps more than for any police officer outside of the realm of fiction, NYPD Medal of Honor winner Frank Serpico’s name is synonymous with honest cop. Rivetingly portrayed on screen by Al Pacino, Serpico is most famous for blowing the whistle on police corruption in the late ’60s and early ’70s—an act of valor that compelled Mayor John V. Lindsay to appoint the landmark Knapp Commission to investigate the NYPD. Though the film concludes with a postscript stating that Serpico retired from the force after recovering from a gunshot wound to the face sustained in the line of duty and subsequently moved to Switzerland, Detective Serpico returned to the United States in 1980.
Today Serpico, 76, continues to speak out against police corruption and brutality, lecturing to students at universities and police academies and serving as a mentor to officers in situations similar to the one he endured on the force.City & State Editor Morgan Pehme met with Serpico at a farmers’ market down the road from the wood cabin the legendary cop built with his own hands on the rural 50-acre plot of land on which he now lives in Columbia County.
What would you say to a cop who is thinking about becoming a whistle-blower or a person who feels persecuted by the system?
I would advise him to protect himself and align himself with like-minded people and organizations that support him and know what he or she is going through. I’ve been working with the Government Accountability Project and the Project on Government Oversight with what they call “whistle-blowers.” I don’t like that term, but they say it’s already established into law. I like to call it “lamp-lighters.” They say, Why? I say, Well, you go into these tenement houses and you turn on the lights, and the roaches just scamper for the woodwork. It’s the same thing with politicians.
You have complained over the years that there has been a coordinated effort by the NYPD to smear your name and discourage other officers from following in your footsteps. Do you still feel this way about the department?
Absolutely. There’s no doubt in my mind about it. The New York City Police Museum [refused to accept] my memorabilia. I had a guy call me up last night, he used to work in the Police Academy, and he was trying to teach the recruits about Serpico, and they said, “Don’t you ever bring that name up again.” I wasn’t there, that’s hearsay, but I do know this: There is an organization called the Top Cop Awards. They give awards to cops all over the nation, and they invited me to be a presenter. So I go to Washington, unbelievable display … This one officer recipient says to me, “My father took me to see your movie when I was 8 years old, and that’s when I decided I wanted to be a cop just like you.” Second guy says, “This job sucks, but every time I get discouraged I have a copy of your movie, I put it in my VCR, I have myself a beer and it gives me the courage to go on.” The third guy says, “Here.” And he hands me his cop’s Oscar and he says, “This rightfully belongs to you.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He says, “I made over 136 felony arrests, but it wasn’t me, it was you. You were there standing beside me, leading me on.” And I started getting tears in my eyes, and it was just one of the best experiences of my career. The following year, they’re holding the event in New York City. And I’d always say to my nephew, who’s a lawyer: The NYPD will never honor me for what I did. And he said, “Frank, guess what? We just got a call from [the Top Cops Awards], and they want you to be a presenter. Well, the night before the event, [I get a call from the organizers, saying,] “Gee, we’re awfully sorry, but we’re overbooked.” Now, I don’t believe in conspiracies, but do you think the NYPD had anything to do with it?
Have you given up on the NYPD, then? Have you given up on trying to right the wrongs you so famously took on?
No, absolutely not. I’m fighting it from without by representing those who were unjustly wronged, like in my case. We have to stick together. What I hear over and over again is, “We’re all brothers,” and I go, “Yeah, we’re all brothers,” and then one guy says, “And you’re our father.” So that’s how I feel. I feel these are my children—every one of them. One of them gave me his gold shield and his patrolman’s shield on a plaque that was [given to] him when he left the homicide squad. His name is Bobby Addolorato, [and he] did what in my opinion good cops do. He got two men who were wrongly accused of murder out of jail. And he became an outcast. When you’re doing the right job, they get afraid of you because if you do the right thing, you have to disclose that somebody else goofed.
In your opinion, is there any merit to the department’s stop-and-frisk policy?
No. Not if there’s not probable cause.
You worked in narcotics. What’s your take on decriminalizing marijuana?
They should legalize it—and there would be a big source of revenue, and put the cartels out of business.
You seem to have a great sense of justice at the core of your being. How did you develop this conviction?
I guess I can only say my parents. They’re the ones that raised me, and seeing the injustices that happened to them … My grandfather, when he went to get his payroll, he got stabbed and robbed—and hearing that as a young child, maybe in the back of my mind I thought: justice! And then, seeing my uncle in Italy, who was a policeman, and the respect that he got there, I thought, Wow, you do the right thing and people respect you. And this is what I would like to see in my lifetime. That the police be an image of respect.
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