Serpico testified that, when he first complained about police graft, a captain warned him to “forget it” or he “might end up floating in the river.”
Copyright Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images
FEATURED IN TACTICS AND WEAPONS
Editor’s note: There are some incidents, regardless of age, that are so critical to officer safety they should never be forgotten. “Lessons by the Decades” will periodically feature these tragic events that should be ingrained in the mind of every officer. The following event happened more than 40 years ago and the agency has taken dramatic steps to make needed changes. However, the lessons learned are still powerful and relevant today.
Frank Serpico joined the New York City Police Department (NYPD) in 1959. He was excited to fulfill his boyhood dream of becoming a police officer. He always believed that police officers were the “personification of authority, prestige and respect” yet he was disappointed to find a deeply engrained culture of corruption that included a wide range of offenses. These included but weren’t limited to bribery, protection payoffs, intimidation for hire, theft and free services in exchange for special treatment from police officers.
Many officers Serpico worked with felt that these services or payments were owed to them. Some payoffs to officers were being paid by convicted cop killers.
Officers who disagreed with these practices often believed their choices were limited to looking the other way or participating with everyone else since reporting these behaviors was interpreted as violating a sacred “code.”
During the 1960s, overall respect for law enforcement was declining and Serpico knew that corrupt practices continued to damage law enforcement in the eyes of the public. Serpico had spoken to supervisors repeatedly only to find more personnel who were either involved in corrupt activities or were unwilling to act to stop them. Over the course of his career, Serpico found himself subjected to harassment, physical intimidation and implied death threats by other officers. Serpico continued his efforts because the oath he swore didn’t include any promises of immunity for officers. He felt that officers should actually be held to a higher standard than the general public.
On April 25, 1970, the New York Times ran a front page story exposing wide-spread police corruption in New York City. A grand jury was convened and Serpico was called to testify despite threats intended to deter him. Serpico drew no distinction between “crooks” and “crooked cops.” Several indictments were handed down due in part to his testimony. The following June, Serpico testified in the criminal trial against those officers, whom were ultimately found guilty of their corrupt activities. The mayor of New York City convened a special commission, commonly referred to as the Knapp Commission, to investigate corruption within the NYPD.
On February 3, 1971, Serpico was shot in the face during a drug raid. Controversy surrounded the circumstances of the shooting and questions continue to this day. Some believe that Serpico was set up by his fellow officers and that those officers failed to call for help or assist him after the shooting. While in the hospital, Serpico continued to receive harassing and threatening letters.
Serpico testified before the Knapp Commission in late 1971 with fragments of the assailant’s bullet still embedded in his brain. In his testimony, Serpico related his attempts to report corruption to his superiors and described an “atmosphere in which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer, and not the other way around.”
The Knapp Commission’s final report confirmed that corruption was widespread in the NYPD, and it provided several recommendations for change including supervisor accountability for subordinates’ actions, improved screening and selection methods and standards, and an overall change in department attitudes. Serpico was promoted to detective and awarded the NYPD’s Medal of Honor before he retired from law enforcement in 1972.
Lessons Learned & Ignored
Ethics filter down: Ethics shouldn’t have to be taught in a classroom. Instead, agency administrators, supervisors, FTOs and veterans should demonstrate good ethics every day in their own actions. Like any profession, law enforcement will occasionally have a bad apple. However, administrators can help to weed out any bad apples before they become larger problems if the agency demands quality in its hiring process, background investigations, academy, FTO program and field supervision.
Be a “lamplighter”: Serpico coined the term “lamplighter” to use in place of “whistleblower.” He defines a lamplighter as “one who seeks truth and justice even when confronted with the prospect of great personal loss.” Silence and integrity aren’t the same: We’re all responsible for policing our profession and can’t afford to permit unethical or illegal behavior by our own. Shine a light into dark ethical areas to expose and eliminate them.
No one owes you a free meal or cup of coffee: Most citizens respect the job you do even if they don’t publicly thank you for doing it. Politely declining these offers will make it unnecessary to question the giver’s motives.
Catch a cop doing something right: Publicly acknowledge and commend other officers when they make the right choice in a tough ethical decision. Demonstrate that a culture of integrity exists within your agency instead of ignoring or condoning unethical behavior.
The Below 100 initiative: Wear your seatbelt and watch your speed. If you expect the general public to respect the traffic laws, shouldn’t you? Or are you speeding and not wearing your seatbelt simply because you think you can? W.I.N.—What’s Important Now? is maintaining your honor and integrity so you can perform your duties effectively. Complacency kills. Compromising your integrity once, regardless of the seriousness, can have long-lasting effects. How do you explain your actions to the public, the media or your family? Twenty years of dedicated service will be forgotten over one negative incident.
Maas, Peter. Serpico: The Cop Who Defied the System. Viking Press: New York, 1973.