Serpico: 'Nothing Has Changed'
'The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which honest police officers can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers.'
Frank Serpico, testifying before the New York Knapp Commission on police corruption and other misconduct, October 1971
Not long ago, a police officer called me. He told me his name and where he was assigned on condition that I not reveal that information. He was disturbed, indeed repelled, by what is euphemistically called the excessive force gloried in by some of his fellow officers. He was equally disgusted by the fact that the good cops, the decent cops, would not report brutality by their colleagues.
Nor would he name names because, as Frank Serpico said in 1971, it would be extremely dangerous to speak out.
Now, millions of Americans know how pervasive this fear of retaliation still is within the NYPD. On October 3, CBS-TV's 60 Minutes exposed the disgrace of the NYPD; its police commissioner, Howard Safir; and Safir's own commander, Rudolph Giuliani.
Reported by Ed Bradley, the segment was called "The Blue Wall of Silence." Bradley first noted that Safir and Giuliani have proudly declared that the "blue wall" is a myth because four cops testified against Justin Volpe in the Louima case. But, said Bradley, "the reality is that cops almost never testify against a brother or sister officer. And for good reason."
The reality is Daisy Boria. For 16 years, she was a New York City police officer who, Bradley noted, "routinely turned a blind eye to what she saw-everything from police officers who stole money from drug dealers to cops who assaulted civilians without provocation."
Finally, however, Daisy Boria temporarily broke through the wall. She was present when fellow officer Francis Livoti-infuriated because Anthony Baez accidentally hit Livoti's police car with a football-put a choke hold on Baez and killed him.
She testified against Livoti at his trial-where other police officers who had been at the scene earnestly absolved Livoti of any unlawful conduct. The presiding judge, Gerald Sheindlin, after hearing those other cops, said openly that there was a "nest of perjury" in that courtroom. But Sheindlin did nothing about it. The faithful guardians of the blue wall of silence went back to the streets, and Livoti was acquitted.
Later, he was convicted in a federal court and now is justly in prison. And U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White is investigating that nest of police perjury.
After telling the truth, Daisy Boria, as she said on 60 Minutes, received death threats and was no longer backed up on jobs by other cops. Fearing those threats, she wore a bulletproof vest everywhere, except at home. Her superiors knew what was going on and had her locker checked for bombs on every hour. But the terrorism went on. It was not stopped by police brass even though everyone in the precinct was aware that Daisy Boria was afraid for her life. It could have been stopped by the department's Internal Affairs Division, which is supposed to detect police lawlessness.
The cop who called me about the blue wall kept emphasizing that new cops are inculcated at the police academy with the attitude that "it's us against them." We civilians are "them."
Daisy Boria said on 60 Minutes that when she was in training at the police academy, "you were told that you do not rat out another cop. Your worst nightmare would be turning in another cop."
Police Commissioner Howard Safir was invited to appear on 60 Minutes to answer Daisy Boria. Not surprisingly, he refused.
After Frank Serpico testified before the Knapp Commission in 1971, he was on a drug bust. He got to the building with two other officers, ran up to the third floor, and approached a door that was chain locked. Serpico hit the door with his shoulder as hard as he could, expecting his backup to be right behind him. But the other two cops were not there.
Serpico yelled, "Police! Hands up!" The last thing he saw was a huge flash as he was shot in the head through an opening in the door.
Just before, Serpico had shouted to his partners, "What the fuck are you waiting for?"
As he makes clear in Peter Maas's book Serpico (Harper Collins paperback), Frank knew he had been paid back for being a "rat."
Serpico left the force and went abroad for a long time. He came back last year to testify at a City Council hearing on police brutality and corruption. He told me that as he went into the room, he passed some young cops who were on duty. They might have been in diapers when Serpico testified before the Knapp Commission in 1971.
They looked at Serpico with icy hatred. Once a "rat," always a "rat."
"Nothing has changed," Serpico said to me.
Daisy Boria also left the force with a disability pension-for depression. She now lives in another state, but still gets calls. There is no voice at the other end. Just a hang-up.
Also on that 60 Minutes program was Joseph McNamara, who was a patrol officer in the NYPD and later became chief of police in Kansas City and San Jose. Now writing a book on the blue wall of silence, he has documented thousands of cases of lawless cops who were and are protected by their comrades.
"Everything," says McNamara, "from cops committing armed robberies on duty, to even kidnapping people on duty, to stealing drugs, selling drugs." And, of course, brutalizing civilians.
"It's a national crisis," McNamara emphasizes. It's a profound crisis in Giuliani's New York. Here too, as McNamara points out, "your career gets advanced by making arrests, not by uncovering a scandal in the police department."
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