The Return of Frank Serpico


On several early mornings in 1971, when Frank Serpico was about to testify on corruption in the police department before the Knapp commission, I saw him in the lobby of my building in the Village. He was there to confer with his attorney, Ramsey Clark, who also lived at that address. Clark was representing Serpico without fee because he felt “the police department desperately needed men like Frank Serpico.”

My son, Nick, then 10, passed by Serpico and Clark on his way to school. Nick knew about Serpico from newspapers and television. He was aware that in February of that year, Serpico the whistle-blower—regarded as a “rat” by many cops—had been shot in the face during a buy-and-bust operation when his backup team failed him. Those cops were standing behind him on the landing, but, Serpico remembered, they seemed transfixed. So, left vulnerable, he was shot. And the officer-in-distress signal—1013—was not sent out on the police radio.

Now as then, even honest cops are afraid to report corruption and brutality because of what happens to “rats” in the department.

My son greatly admired Serpico and was furious at the price he had paid for his courage. Nick wrote Serpico a letter and Ramsey Clark forwarded it to him.

Talking to Serpico recently, I told him I doubted he remembered Nick’s letter. Serpico said, “How could I not remember a 10-year-old with that much passion for justice?”

Nick grew up to be a public defender in Arizona and then was in private practice. Now he’s likely to become a public defender again.

A few weeks ago, Serpico and I talked about police brutality. (He says he doesn’t distinguish between police brutality and police corruption.) I mentioned how the present police commissioner, Howard Safir, had prejudiced Georgia Brewer’s brutality case against the police (see my column in the May 26 Voice). On television, without hearing both sides, Safir had said that Georgia Brewer had committed a serious crime and should be prosecuted.

“Safir,” said Serpico, “should resign from the force.” He told me of a screening of Copland, the movie about “dirty cops.” Both Safir and his predecessor, William Bratton, were in the audience.

“Safir said that the movie was interesting but ‘has no basis in reality,’ ” Serpico noted. “Safir doesn’t know what reality is. There’s a scene in which Robert De Niro explodes with frustration after he gets a call from politically connected superiors who have killed his investigation of crooked cops.”

When Serpico testified before the Knapp commission in October 1971, he said he had experienced frustration and anxiety “at the hands of my superiors because of my attempts to expose corruption. . . . The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which an honest police officer can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers.”

Last September 23, when Serpico testified before a New York City Council hearing on police corruption and brutality, he said, “There’s been a lot of focus on community policing, but not much on the use of force—that’s still condoned.” As for what happened to Abner Louima, Serpico pointed out that incidents of police brutality “are not isolated incidents. It’s a general atmosphere that exists.” He added that brutality, corruption, and racism are still embedded in the culture of the NYPD.

A powerful indication of this culture of hatred toward anyone on the force who dares expose brutality or corruption can be seen in this New York Times report by Clyde Haberman on Serpico’s appearance before the City Council:

“Plainclothes officers guarding the entrance to City Hall gave Serpico looks that could have cooled burning coals. For sure, they were polite, these men, some of whom were little boys when Frank Serpico blew the whistle. But they glared in unvarnished hostility as they pointed him toward a metal detector.”

“You should know that I’m not the only guy,” Serpico said that day. “There are a lot of good guys out there on the force, if you give them the voice.”

The “voice” starts with an independent prosecutor and an independent staff to investigate police brutality and corruption and provide total protection to whistle-blowers in the force.

In the current paperback reissue of Serpico by Peter Maas, Serpico has written a new afterword, which begins with an epigraph by Friedrich Nietzsche: “Perhaps nobody yet has been truthful enough about what ‘truthfulness’ is.” A point Giuliani is not likely to ever understand.

Serpico goes on, “In New York, while doing a radio talk show, an NYC police officer called in to say, ‘You know, Frank, the day you testified before the Knapp Commission was a dark day for every cop in NYC. When I went home that night, I couldn’t face my wife and kids.’

” ‘Why?’ I inquired. ‘What did you do wrong?’

” ‘Nuttin’,’ he replied.

” ‘Why didn’t you come out and back me up?’

“Without hesitation he shot back, ‘What, and be an outcast like you?’

“A very sad commentary,” adds Serpico, “but I believe this man’s attitude reflects that of most honest officers.

It is my opinion that there have never been any real department incentives for cops to be honest (or to avoid brutality) from the police academy to the police commissioner.” (Emphasis added.)

There will be no such incentive—and no independent prosecutor—so long as Giuliani is mayor. He has provided me with the first compelling reason for term limits.

Another sign of the dreary immediate future is an article by Peter Maas, Serpico’s biographer, in the May 10 Parade, celebrating the Giuliani-Safir command of the police force. Both, triumphant, are on the cover. But not a word in the article about rampant police brutality on their watch. Peter Maas knows better.