A Letter Home
February 3, 1975
Many people have written me letters over the past couple of years. As much as I’ve tried to answer each personally, I just can’t answer them all. People write asking all kinds of questions. They want to give me advice. They want me to give them advice. They tell me their life stories. They want to do favors for me. They want me to do favors for them. Some of the letters contain specific, personal information about what’s happening in police departments across the country, in the fight against crime and corruption. Some people admire me. Others despise me. I’m a hero. I’m a freak and a Commie. I guess it’s all part of being the focus of public attention.
Anyway, I thought I’d try to answer most of those letters with this one. It will probably be a little disorganized, but I try to say what’s on my mind.
I’ve gone through quite a few changes since leaving America over two years ago. Some are personal, some political, but mostly they blend. I’ve watched what’s happening politically in America, with Watergate and Nixon and Ford and now Rockefeller. I returned for a short time to work for the election of Ramsey Clark to the Senate, and witnessed his defeat. I spend a lot of my time reflecting on the things that have happened to me, the things I’ve seen in America and over here in Europe, the people I’ve met.
The first thing people always want to know about me is what I thought of the book and the movie, whether or not I figured Pacino portrayed me the way I really am. All I’m going to say is this: The typical things happened with the movie that happen with any movie, you know. The producer puts his girlfriend in a role at the cost of one of the characters, that sort of thing. But I don’t want to talk about the book or the movie or Pacino because any complaints I have about the film just aren’t that important in comparison to the issues and problems raised in the book and the movie, problems which persist in the NYPD and in America as a country.
When I first became a cop… well, today people ask, didn’t you know what it was like? I never heard… the things that I finally learned, I never heard of them as a kid. I had heard comments, about apples and lunches and things, then when I became a cop, I heard vague rumors about envelopes, you know? But still, no one would tell you directly about it. I found that I slowly started becoming a cop. You just don’t become a cop once you take the oath. They start to mold you. You become exposed to a certain way of life, and you start doing things that way, and after a while you start thinking that’s the right way to do it, and you start thinking: You’re always right. And if you’re not right, you’ll make it right. That’s the part that started rubbing me the wrong way. Maybe it was my conscience that was bothering me, because either you face up to your conscience, or you go along with the system, and you just become totally committed, and then there’s no turning back. Maybe I got my conscience from my folks. I’d like to think it was always there. I’d like to believe it exists in everybody. It’s just a matter of listening to it.
For example, there might have been some things I did when I was a policeman that I thought were really right, and maybe I didn’t question them too deeply. But the real turnabout came when there was something material, that I could grasp, when they said, “Whamo, here’s the bread, either you take it or you don’t.” And I said, I don’t want it, because I don’t want to take this money. That was something I could reject. Everybody seems to focus on the monetary aspect of it, but like Eliot says, “That’s not what I meant at all.” It’s from the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” I can’t recall it exactly. He says, if one, turning to the window or throwing off a shawl, would turn to me and say, that is not what I meant, that is not what I meant at all. Those aren’t the exact words, but they’re repeated several times, and what I had gotten from it is exactly that. People are always going along with things.
For example, you meet a girl, and right away, if you’re sexually oriented, you figure, yeah, well, we’re going to meet, and we’re going to get into a thing. And the woman, she’s afraid to reject and say no, because she feels this is what is expected of her, this is what she’s supposed to do. So many women have done this, and so many men. A guy figures, this is my macho at stake here, and I have to prove it and make her in one night. And if only one of them should have the guts and turn to the other and say, this is not what I meant at all. Sure, there are people who say it, but they don’t really say it. They bring up all these excuses and vague generalities, and going off on tangents, but they never really face the issue. They use defenses, not truth.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the typical American epic. It’s been beaten into us by films and stories. A guy who really covered it nicely was Vonnegut. He said we’ve become as disposable as tissues. Authors find it very convenient to just dispose of certain characters, have them assassinated, killed off. When I was a kid, watching the Phantom, watching these melodramas they pounded on us, the hero kills the villain, saves the girl, and that’s the end of it. They live happily ever after. Popeye the Sailor. Now the American epic has extended itself from saving the little damsel in distress to saving the nation. And everybody’s really swallowing this crap, that we’ve just been saved. We haven’t been saved from anything. We’re in the same rut that caused us to be in a rut in the first place. There was a great line in Time magazine a week or so back, where they’re congratulating their staff for their work on the Watergate story: “High officials who used lawless means to manipulate the public they were supposed to serve have been stopped. But it was too close a call.” We have another “victory.” It might be an editorial victory. But not as far as the nation is concerned. Nothing has changed, really.
The funny part of this is that most of the people who live in the ghettos do know what democracy is all about. They know they’re being shitted on all the time by the police. I’ll bet that in contrast to upper-class and middle-class people, the ghetto people, the lower-class people were the least shocked by the presidential situation, by Watergate and the Nixon pardon. These people know what the American epic is really about. They know that the villain isn’t being destroyed, like all the melodramas taught us. He’s just being replaced. And the people don’t have anything to say about it. The two men running the nation are both there without so much as a single word from the society. Ford got appointed by a man who is qualified as a criminal in the eyes of the law, and Rockefeller, our national millionaire, is sitting there, right beside him. America can only suffer at the hands of these two men, until the next election. Hopefully, what we’ve gone through woke the public up. And maybe next time, they’ll have some good people to choose from and can elect a good leader.
I guess I still have hope. I believe in the need for good leadership, and it’s got to start right at the top, whether you’re talking about the country or the police department. But look what we’ve got now? Ford is trying to make the poor shlump in the street feel guilty because he’s eating too much. He really insults the intelligence of the average American. He says, now clean your plates and eat all your food. That’s such bullshit.
Leadership is a two-way street. If Ford, or any other president wants the respect and the help of the American people, he can’t keep treating them like idiots. In order for the system to work, the leader has to give out as much respect as he demands from those below him. It was that way in the police department, only the thing was, there were so few true leaders. Here is what a good leader was in the department: He was a guy who didn’t feel that he had to tell his men to go out and arrest a bunch of kids for smoking a joint, so they could show a bunch of narcotics arrests for statistics, for the records.
In my experience, a good cop is a cop who can go before a court of law and tell the judge exactly the way it happened. That’s what a good cop is. But too many cops falsify arrests records, because they’re led to believe it’s essential in order to get a conviction, because the defendant is going to lie anyway, so they might as well lie, too. Well, the fact is, this type of behavior has brought about the distrust of the police by the society. A cop is just like President Ford. He is supposed to have the public trust. But in order to get the trust, he has to earn it. These days, neither cops nor presidents care enough to earn the trust of the public.
In some of these European countries, the policeman is trusted because he is an honorable person. He is known not to lie. But with what has been happening in America, even the judges, the honest judges, have come to mistrust the testimony of cops because they’re known to lie continuously. And if they don’t believe it, all they have to do is check the court records and see the court affidavits, how repetitious and humdrum they are, the same things, said the same way, over and over. Nothing that really happened could possibly happen continually, the same way, over and over again.
Recently someone sent me a clipping from the Attica trial. One of the defendants is late for his trial — he’s out on bail — so the judge revokes his bail, he goes back to jail, and the guards knock him unconscious, they really batter his whole body. An expert comes to testify that this man has been beaten up. Then the guards are called, and this is the scene: one guard has him by the left arm, the other guard has him by the right arm, and “The defendant fell to the ground, your honor. That’s how he got all those bruises.” This is something policemen have done for years. First they brutalize the guy, bloody his nose, beat his head, then when he gets into court, if the judge should ask what happened to him, they say, “Oh, he tripped down the stairs, your honor.” This kind of corruption is encouraged in the department, because the men who are now leaders in the department behaved the same way when they were on a beat.
The department is complaining now about being supervised too closely, they say they can’t function properly knowing they’re being observed all the time. It was in The Voice article by Parachini. They say, in fact, there’s a new breed of policeman around, and this kind of close supervision is no longer essential. I say that it’s much too early for them to leave this new breed to function by itself. Like a sapling that’s growing, if you don’t give it support until it can stand by itself, it’s just going to get crooked. Same with the new young cops. I’m not saying that all of them who are there would get crooked. Many aren’t crooked now, and won’t go bad in the future. But until they can prove themselves — the leaders in the department, I mean — they have to accept the responsibility for what has gone on before. Had they been more conscientious about their jobs, the corruption wouldn’t have existed then, and it wouldn’t exist now. The police say they want to police themselves. Well, let them show us they can do it. In my experience, I’ve seen that they can’t.
Some of the most honest cops I knew, men who wouldn’t take a nickel, men who were so righteous they wouldn’t even use profanity, they would never turn in another policeman. It was something you just didn’t do. It was supposed to be the responsibility of some higher agency. They made us believe there was a mysterious Boogeyman out there who would police the corruption. I say bullshit. It’s the responsibility of every man who wears that uniform. Any misdeed by any man in the blue uniform is a reflection not only on the department as a whole, but on the individual who witnesses it.
I was equally responsible. I admit it. There were times I saw cops taking traffic money, and I never did anything about it. I was led to believe by the supervisors, by the leaders, that, yeah, there are men who do that. Don’t get caught doing it, but it happens.
The police have got to get away from this thing they’re pushing that taking money is the only kind of corruption there is, the kind Serpico exposed. That’s bullshit. There’s all kinds of corruption. Lying on the stand. Falsifying arrests records. Cooping. That still goes on. Everybody knows. it. Illegal searches and seizures. All of this is corruption, and are they dealing with it? The Knapp Commission didn’t deal with these other kinds of corruption, and the department isn’t dealing with it now. And the cops want you to believe because there’s a so-called new breed of cop, you don’t have to worry about corruption. But what about the guys up top? Who are they? Why should we trust them? How did they get where they are?
I remember one time when I was a young cop, I was assigned over in the 81st, and there happened to be a lot of burglaries in the precinct. My partner and I — we were young cops — wanted to make some arrests, but we were on foot patrol, in uniform. We had no mobility, and the men who were supposed to be working the area, the men in the radio cars, were all cooping. So the burglars were running wild. So me and the guy on the next post, we just decided we’d use my private car and patrol, so we could park in an area, and watch, and not be noticed. One day we happened to pass the sergeant. He was on his way to his coop. I can’t say what he thought we were up to, but he gave chase, I mean chasing us. So we had to split to a luncheonette, and we took our books and wrote down “coffee break.” When he confronted us there, we had to pretend we were there all along.
Then a short time later, I happened to be assigned to drive this same sergeant, and the first thing he says when he jumps in the car is, “Where can I go to pick up a quick 50 bucks?” I said, “Search me?” and nothing else was said. That same guy is an inspector now.
This is what I mean about leadership. When I was on that beat in Brooklyn, why couldn’t I talk with the sergeant and tell him what we were up to, that we were trying to make burglary arrests and needed my car to do so? But the rules said, no use of private vehicles. So we had to make an excuse or we’d have been brought up on charges. You should see the book of rules and procedures. It’s the fattest book you’d ever want to see. It’s the size of the Manhattan telephone directory. And it’s continuously being changed. Amendments are added to that book faster than a computer could possibly follow, and they expect an average person with a high school education to keep up with it. I think that whole book should be revised. They should throw it out the window and start over. I remember when I was a kid, I found a copy of a policeman’s rules and procedures, and it was about six inches by three inches, the size of a personal address book or notebook. You could keep it in your pocket for references.
So why can’t a man patrol in his own car? Because they’re afraid the man is going to jump in his car and drive home. But you’re supposed to be a police officer. The heads of the department, the leaders, should have enough faith in their men to expect them not to abuse the privilege to be able to patrol in a man’s own car. This is why so many of the rules and procedures are so counterproductive. Most of them were brought about by a feeling of mistrust for the men.
The superiors in the department are asking the cop on the beat to be a superman, more than a man, in the sense that he has to abide by all these picky little department regulations. Yet the superiors themselves don’t abide by them. The only area where they should ask more from the men is in the area of integrity. I wouldn’t even say that they should ask that a cop be more honest than the average man. He just should be honest. Just like men should be honest. Why not allow cops to be normal human beings and fit in with the society they’re supposed to be protecting, so they can interrelate better, the cops and the people.
Look at what’s going on in New York now. The commissioner’s office plants wallets, supposedly lost, where cops will find them to test them to see if they will do their duty and turn them in. Now the PBA runs its version of the test on the public, to show the public isn’t honest, and they reply, then how do you expect the police to be honest? That isn’t a fair test. You don’t compare the behavior of the police to the behavior of the public. The police have the public trust. They were chosen, selected for their job. The PBA mentality here is the Nixon mentality. I don’t have to be straight, because the other guy isn’t being straight. It’s the same mentality which says there’s something wrong with a man if he doesn’t have short hair.
What has police leadership been waiting for? If they haven’t instituted fundamental changes yet, what are they afraid of? What are they holding on to? What is the mysterious power which makes them perpetuate this antiquated system? Where were they when John Bal, the “Bethesda Fountain cop,” was run out of the department on trumped-up charges?
The irony here is that the system which they have perpetuated has turned against them. For many, many years, police were not permitted to live in, or hang out in the precinct in which they worked. This came from mistrust within the department, they figured you’d be loading up at the local saloon on the arm, or shaking down the storekeepers, intruding on the precinct pad.
Then suddenly they get this idea to place a man in a precinct where he was living, and it just didn’t work, because by this time, the public had lost its trust in the police. You see the dualism? Mistrust of cops by other cops within the department has bred mistrust of the cops by the public.
What cops don’t understand, or what they refuse to understand, is that police officers shouldn’t expect more from the public than they do from themselves.
This is what I mean by professionalism. I remember an instructor at the police academy who said: “Never give a man a traffic ticket just because he happens to bad-mouth you.” In other words, if you stop the car, and you had no intention of giving him a ticket, you were going to warn him, that his light was out, and he says, screw you, why don’t you go get the muggers instead of wasting your time on taillights. You don’t go getting your back up and give the man a ticket because he offends your manhood. If you do you’re just a high school squirt out on the street who feels stuffy behind a badge and a gun, and you’re just shoving your power off on people. It’s so easy to take away people’s liberty.
A friend of mine in New York who is a landlord was out fixing his window one day, and somebody spotted him for a burglar and called the cops. They started working him over right there. Maybe they didn’t like the way he looked, but they start beating on him before they’ve even asked him a question. It’s a typical thing. So they get him in the squad car, and they’re going through his things, and they find a picture of me in his wallet, and they really start going over him then — a friend of Serpico’s huh? Well, they tried to get him to sign a release. They beat him up right in front of his father, and they wanted him to sign a release! He wrote me a letter, and said, Jesus, is this what they’ve been doing to the blacks for years? And this guy had been a red-neck. Really opened his eyes.
I was talking to a police commissioner here in the Netherlands. I asked him what he thought about having his men watched, the way the article in The Voice describes is going on in New York. He said he didn’t like the idea of an elite organization within the department having the power to spy, or pass judgment on your actions. He didn’t like it because trust exists between cops in his department, and between the cops and the people in his town. I can understand his position, because if a police organization is honest, it is an affront to their integrity to spy on them. You must have trust to get trust.
This is the way it is in the Netherlands. A high police official in the same department I just mentioned was sent a bottle of Cognac after he had helped in the investigation of a crime. This police official told me, “I sent the bottle back, because if I didn’t, it would have cost me my job.” That same man got a call from the head of a major department store and was asked if it would be all right if the store sent small gifts to the cops who had helped in the investigation of thefts from the store. The first thing is, the guy called up and asked permission! But the police official said, no, he didn’t think it would be proper or warranted, because the men were just doing their jobs, and they were being adequately paid for their jobs. That is the level I would like to see the NYPD elevated to. There should be no privileges for the cops in New York, not free meals, not even a cup of coffee. They don’t need it here, why should they in New York?
Here the police have their own cafeterias, they pay reduced rates, just above cost, the food is very good, they even have little patios where they can sit and eat under umbrellas when the weather is good. Now the police might say that this isn’t applicable to New York, because it’s too big. In London they’ve got cafeterias, or they issue chits to their men, which are good for a meal outside the cafeteria. This could be done in New York, and it could be done in such a way that the system is self-sustaining. Policemen for years have been cooking their own meals in precincts — only difference is the fact that most of them get the food on the arm. And the firemen cook their own meals. I remember times when you were working nights, and there weren’t any restaurants open, except some greasy spoon, so you’d walk back to the precinct, fix up a little something to eat, and walk back to your post. It didn’t take any longer than it would have to find a restaurant that was open. Besides, they’ve done these studies that show during any given period of time, there are almost as many men in the precinct as there are on the street. They’re working on paperwork, or pulling desk duties, a dozen other things. So it would be possible for police cafeterias in New York, and the money the cops paid for the meals could pay for them, and they could do away with this whole meal-on-the-arm business once and for all.
Here in the Netherlands, I was asked if I would speak to all the top police officials in the town, including the mayor. The way this came about is kind of a funny story, but it illustrates, again, the way the police work here.
I was living in a little pad along the river here, and I was getting ready for bed, when Alfie starts doing his number, whining, barking, making a fuss. So I tell him to be quiet and go to sleep, but he keeps it up. Finally I look out the window, and I see this guy walking on a houseboat at 1 a.m., and I figure it must be his boat. I had noticed the houseboat before and wondered whose it was. Anyway, by this time, I’ve become more of a Netherlander, I’m less suspicious, you know, not so quick to look for the bad side of things. I could see, even in the shadows, that the guy had long hair, but many people here have long hair and beards, and this means nothing, not even to the cops.
But then he kicked in the front window of the boat, and I figured, well, maybe he forgot his key. Then I thought: It’s 1 a.m., why didn’t he wait until morning? So I figured, what the hell, maybe I should alert the neighbors and call the police. So the guy upstairs called the police, and they responded so quickly! They were there by the time the guy was walking out the gate from the dock, and he had his arms full of goodies he had taken from the boat. But, the way the police responded to the scene… [nothing to] get excited about, no lights flashing, no hullabaloo, no grabbing of the defendant and pushing him up against the car. It was all done with a very civil tone. They asked him to put the goodies down and turn to the car to be frisked. Then they actually guided him into the car, as you might help an old man into the back seat. The attitude was: Here is somebody who needs your help, rather than this is some kind of an animal, to be handled like an animal.
When they got him into the car, they didn’t start questioning him immediately, trying to get him to trip himself up. He knows what he did, they know what he did, and the procedure was: now just come into the stationhouse, and let’s see what can be done here. There was no ridicule, none of the, “Okay, we got you,” macho business… it was as if a crime hadn’t even taken place. Nothing to see any of that New York attitude: “Whoopee! I made an arrest! I got him!” They took my name, and asked me to come down to the stationhouse the next day. There was no rush. I found out later they had taken him in, identified him and questioned him, and he was allowed to go home. They didn’t incarcerate him, or haul him off to court in the middle of the night.
I could hardly believe it, but it became more real to me when I discovered the follow-up the detectives did on the case, to find out his background, what might have caused him to commit the crime, had he been in trouble before. In New York, it would have been an open-and-shut case. The cops caught him in the act, there were witnesses. A detective wouldn’t even have been assigned to the case. But here, the whole emphasis seemed to be on finding the reason this man had acted this way.
The detective questioned me, the officers who responded, and other witnesses. Another man came up who had seen the whole thing. Here, people aren’t afraid to “get involved.” But the interesting part was this. I was in the stationhouse, and apparently my name had gotten up to the police commissioner, and he came down and said, “Mr. Serpico, I would like to shake your hand.” I said to him, “It’s always a pleasure to meet a policeman who wants to shake my hand.” So we got into a rap, and that was when he asked me to come speak to the police officials of the town.
They made arrangements to show the movie, and I was to address them. My observation to the police officials, after they saw the film, was this: The movie didn’t do so well in the Netherlands. The police, as well as the people, couldn’t relate to the movie as a real-life drama, like it really had happened. In New York and in Italy, where police systems are more or less on the same level of corruption, people could relate to the film as the truth, it was real to them.
So I told them what my reaction was. I was pleased that the movie didn’t do well here, and also I was pleased that these officials found it hard to believe that such a police system existed. We had gone over certain incidents in the movie, and their questions indicated they were incredulous. So the good fact was they couldn’t relate to it, but I told them there was a bad fact: The danger exists. I told them I hoped they wouldn’t let down their guard, so that something like this could happen in the Netherlands. They have to safeguard against corruption. They understood exactly what I was talking about, even though the facts in the movie had been almost incomprehensible to them. These officials were very bright, very professional. They all understood English. Some of them spoke German and French. They were incredibly civic-minded, they really care about their city. Later I was invited to the Police Academy. That’s a whole story in itself. When I saw the Police Academy, it was easy for me to understand why I had found the police and the brass so professional. Here, it begins right there in the academy. They’re serious cops. There’s no bullshit.
The point I want to make is this: The talk in New York, like The Voice article, is about how the police have changed. But the way I have been treated here in the Netherlands by the police, and the way I’m treated by the police when I come back to New York — it’s worlds apart. I didn’t notice any change in police attitudes when I walked into police headquarters in November (1974). You could see the rage on their faces. I asked one guy a question, he didn’t even answer me and walked out of the office. The funny part of it was, when the civilian personnel found out I was in the building, they started asking me for autographs. You could see the antagonism and the rage on cops’ faces. Why? Why does this exist?
Talking about the difference in police systems between here and New York, and the differences in attitude, gets us into the whole area of the kinds of corruption which aren’t being dealt with in New York. There was the Knapp Commission, but essentially all they were concerned with was the buck. Guys on the take. And who did they get? Nobody, really. Little fish. But there is corruption of all sorts. Let me give you some examples, and compare them to the way things are over here. We’ve already talked about the difference in the attitude of the arresting officer, and the concern for the defendant in the judicial process, how in the Netherlands they assigned a detective to a case that was open and shut. Within this system in the Netherlands, no cop would lie on the stand, something which goes on all the time in New York.
In Italy, I was talking with a police officer, and I looked at his Beretta and it looked kind of rusty, and I asked him, when was the last time you shot it? He said, “Oh, I don’t remember.” All he had were six shells. And here in the Netherlands, policemen are not allowed to purchase ammunition. They are issued six bullets. That’s what they carry with their automatic weapon. This provides for control over the manner and the frequency of usage of police weapons. In America, policemen are carrying all sorts of unauthorized weapons. They can purchase any type of ammunition they want. I have observed New York cops giving their informants weapons and ammunition. I’m not trying to say that cops shouldn’t carry weapons, that they shouldn’t use them. If it comes to a point-blank shoot-out with a guy, and he’s trying to kill you, then you had better get him first. But when it comes to the point of indiscriminate use of weapons, which goes on all the time, firing a weapon for no reason at all, then something has to be done.
Knives are another big problem, and they lead to corruption of another sort. Too many policemen carry knives which are above necessary specifications, beyond what is required in the performance of their duty. If they need a knife to cut a rope or something, okay. But I think every policeman would have a standard knife, a boy-scout type knife, like a Swiss Army knife. And it should have his badge number on it, like his night-stick and other personal effects have. But too many cops carry knives which are later supposedly found at the scene of the crime. Several young children have been killed by policemen in Harlem, and later the officers claimed they were attacked by the child with this knife, which in fact belonged to the cop. He carried it just so he could drop it at the scene. I think this would prevent a lot of racial tensions, because in Harlem they know the cops have got these knives. In fact, it was a standing joke up in Harlem after one of these killings, because when the sergeant came down to investigate, he was kicking knives around the floor, saying “Get these knives out of here,” because so many guys had thrown knives on the floor to be found by the investigator. The same is true with guns. Some cops carry an extra “clean” gun, so if he kills a guy, and the guy didn’t have a gun, he can place it in the guy’s hand, then the killing was justifiable.
Well, the cops would object to this. They’re going to say it’s not fair, they have a right to protect themselves. They carry a police revolver; they don’t need to protect themselves with a knife or a so-called “clean,” untraceable gun. And as soon as cops begin enforcing the law equally, as soon as they start meting out justice to the society, they might find that the society will start meting out justice to them. In America, it won’t be an easy process to establish, or reestablish this kind of system, but I still feel it can be done.
Now in New York they’ve got this new system whereby police are given points on the promotion exam, depending on how many medals you have. So cops want to blow every arrest all out of proportion, trying to get medals, so they can get points, and get ahead. What this leads to is police activity being geared to personal advancement. Their performance of duty is inspired by how many points they can get toward the promotion exam. The men stop performing as civil servants and begin performing as robots in a system of examinations to get continual increases in their pay. The PBA will go bananas over what I’m saying, but it’s true. Here, that kind of attitude is simply incomprehensible to the police. They’re out on the street, not to scheme how to trip up their fellow man and get him in trouble. Rather their attitude is, how can I help society and keep this guy out of trouble. Too often, misbehavior is concocted in the mind of the policeman.
The cop is the factor in whether man or a kid becomes a criminal.
Example: Here in the Netherlands, a kid goes in a store and lifts a piece of candy. The people are involved as much as the police. The man catches him and he puts him in the corner, and he says, “Okay, I’m calling the police.” The kid gets all shook-up, embarrassed, because everybody who comes into the store knows what the kid did. When the cops come, they don’t write him up on a Juvenile Delinquency card. They reprimand him, and maybe take him home to his parents, and by this time, the kid is so shook-up, he’s never going to try that again.
I never got any bullshit when I was working in Harlem, and I was working there by myself. My attitude was: Hey, man, I’m a fucking cop and there’s no two ways about it. The guy’s a smack dealer. You know what you’re doing, man, and I’ve got you. I found there was respect when you dealt straight with people. Sure there’s always going to be guys who are mentally disturbed, or guys who are going to shoot at you; sure, I’m not trying to make a generality. But there are areas you can help. Don’t scheme to put a guy in the can if there are ways you can help him to stay out of the can.
I’ll tell you what I did up there in Harlem, and I don’t give a damn what people think. I would catch kids with needles in their arms. I’d pull the needle out, if the kid was ODing, and I’d call an ambulance. But why lock up the kid? What would that accomplish? But afterward, when I saw that kid on the street, that kid respected me. After a while, some of those same guys I helped would turn in the guy who was selling them the shit.
I’d go get the guy’s brother and tell him, you better clean up your brother’s act. And I’d tell the kids, look, why are you using this shit? This stuff just wipes you out. Haven’t you smoked grass? Why don’t you stay with some good grass, and forget smack? I’d even advocate those kids using grass. I’d be a goddamn hypocrite if I didn’t. I would rather see them using one rather than ODing on the other.
I found that people basically want to respect authority, but they want it to be a just authority. Everybody wants police, but they want a just police force. They want to feel protected. They want you to make their neighborhood safe to live in, so they can feel safe walking the streets. They want to feel good when they see a cop. That’s why you don’t hear people gripe about the cops here in the Netherlands, because their police are honorable men, they’re good cops, and the people feel comfortable with them around.
But you talk about the problems of the police in America, or the problems of the police here, and in both instances, there is a larger issue. Before you can have a dedication to duty, you must have a dedication to country. And you can’t have a dedication to country, unless you respect that country. Watergate is a good example.
I had retired when Watergate broke, and I was already living over here. But I knew the feelings of the guys I was associated with on the police force. I knew Watergate was bound to affect their sense of duty. “If the fucking President does this and gets away with it, why should they pick on us?” That would be the feeling. The cops would feel they’re the victims of a passing of the buck. It’s all right for the big guys to get away with corruption, but not for the little guys.
I was talking about this on TV with that reporter, Geraldo Rivera. We were talking about Ford pardoning Nixon. Ford had said he thought Nixon had suffered enough, and what good would it have done to prosecute him anymore? Well, what good would it have done? It would have restored people’s trust in justice. Not just the little shlump gets it while Nixon pulls off the caper of the century and walks. That’s first-class corruption. Number one. I think the pardon did more to hurt the morale of the American people, and of their police, than anything that’s happened in this century. Is Richard Nixon still an American? Does he still have his rights? The right to vote? He accepted a pardon for felony crimes. I don’t think he should have.
That segment I did with Geraldo Rivera will be the last television interview I do. In a sense, I feel he distorted what I had to say not only about the country but about police corruption as well. He went on camera after he showed the interview and said, well, Frank Serpico has been living in Europe, and he really hasn’t been in touch. He doesn’t know the changes that have gone on. I don’t know his exact words, but that was the gist of his comment.
I’m in better touch than Geraldo Rivera thinks I am. Sometimes I feel I’m a public confessional. Guys are always writing me about corruption, not just in New York, but all over the country. One of the most recent letters I got was from a guy in the Drug Enforcement Administration. Same story there. Rip-offs. Take-offs. Beatings. What does this guy Geraldo Rivera know? The whole idea of being interviewed by these TV guys turns me off. They twist what you say, and then say you don’t know what you’re talking about anyway.
People have written me, and they ask me all sorts of questions: How does it feel to have done what I did? How does it feel to be famous? Why do I live here, instead of in America?
I guess I really never allow myself the time or the liberty to reflect on these questions. I just want to know who I am, and that’s all that really matters to me. I feel really deeply about America, about the police, about these things people write me about. They’re all a part of who I am, as an individual. I want the right to exist as a free individual. I want everybody to have an equal opportunity to have that same right. And that’s got nothing to do with how famous you are, or how much money you have.
In Italy, people who were told that I was supposed to be somebody immediately wanted to invite me into their establishment and wine me and dine me. And not charge me anything. I understood that to refuse them was an insult. But to accept was an insult not only to myself but to people who are not able to accomplish that which I have accomplished. If there was a poor guy on the road and he was starving, they wouldn’t invite him in for a free dinner. So how could I accept this free meal? It really all boils down to that story my father told me. It’s repetitious. It was in the book and it’s been quoted everywhere. It was about the prince who went to town in his old rags to see how the people of the city were going to treat him, and they treated him like shit. Then he went back to his royal garb, and he was a prince again. It’s just a matter of being able to be yourself.
All I can think of now are the essentials in life. A place to live. Enough to eat. And just some peace of mind. When I look at it closely, it’s really a hard number to do. For example, I might walk into a place, and people look at me like, “what do you want?” Just because I don’t feel like cutting my hair, I’m happy with long hair. I feel like wearing blue jeans because when Alfie slobbers on them, I don’t have to worry. I throw them in the washing machine. I’m comfortable. I’m warm. I’m dry.
And then when people treat me like shit, I want to say, “hey, don’t treat me like shit! Don’t you know I’m not a poor man?” But what the hell is the use doing that? When some poor man who really is poor, and he gets treated like that, he’s got nothing to say. Maybe this all came about from the treatment I got when I was in the police department. When I would pull out my shield, it was a big joke. Eventually I realized, hey, I’m not always going to have this shield in my pocket, and then who am I? That shield isn’t me. I’m nobody.
It can be trying, getting all this mail. I don’t want to be anybody’s pen pal. But I try to understand the position the person is in who is writing. They’re taken in by a fantasy world that we’ve created, and if I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of their fantasy, well, I can’t hold it against them. But as far as sending photographs, or autographs — I don’t want to be held on that level, of being some kind of idol. Because anybody who holds himself up to be some kind of hero has to be ready to face defeat at some point. I don’t mean it like I’m a boxing champ, resigning before I’ve been beaten. That’s something I want to make clear to these people who have been writing letters, urging me not to quit, not to give up. Well, I’m not quitting, and I’m not giving up. I’ll always try to maintain the same attitude I have now. I want to try to make it possible for everybody, including myself, to be able to relate to each other one-to-one as human beings, not as slots at different levels in a system.
I want to go on, reflecting on my experiences and on life itself. But I always need something to keep me busy. So I find things to do with my hands, like refinishing an old cigar box, or carving something.
I’m not living off any of the money I made from the movie and the book. I don’t intend to, ever. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. I’m not going to dump it on a bunch of charities, because I’m too aware that whatever you donate to charities gets siphoned off before it gets to those for whom it was really intended. I’m living off the disability pension I receive from the New York Police Department.
I maintain a moderate living standard. I haven’t felt the impulse to get myself an XKE, or a couple of Brooks Brothers suits. In fact, all this business with the money I’ve made has only served to make my life more complicated. It’s a real problem. Too many people become motivated by making money, rather than in being happy.
What makes me happy right now? I have a nice place to sleep. I have food to eat. I have somebody I am close to, I can talk to. In this regard, there’s something many people don’t understand about me, judging from the letters I’ve gotten. They think I’m some kind of exile, wandering around aimlessly. If I wander around a bit, it’s because I want it that way. Many people have this image of me as a loner, and they write: “Talk to me, I’ll understand.” Well, I wouldn’t even try. What is a loner? I’m a loner, I guess, in the sense that I don’t go to parties, I don’t socialize all that much. But I’ll walk down the street and talk to anybody who’s willing to talk to me.
That’s the way life should be. I read a sad story about a girl who was afraid to go to parties because she didn’t know what to say to people. Well, if you don’t know what to say, maybe there is nothing to say.
I have a kind of emotional security, I think. It’s just something which has come to me over the past couple of years. Look at what mental midgets our heads of state are, and who has been running the police department. They were purported to be better than everyone else, and were just people. When you look at them, you know you don’t have to worry about yourself as a person.
I got a letter from a guy, and it struck me as strange. The guy was in therapy, and he says, I learned something which helped me, and I want to help you with it, and that’s love. It seemed so strange to me, that someone would have to learn not to be afraid to love somebody. But I’m just saying these things in answer to people who write me, thinking they can help me in some way. I appreciate their concern, but I’m helping myself.
Something that I’ve learned — maybe it’s just because I’m getting older. I’ll be 39 in April. And that’s not to set your sights on too much. A lot of people say aim high, and you’ll come in somewhere close to the mark. Which is really bullshit. I guess I’m getting into a sort of personal philosophy. It’s the same old thing — the dread of what may happen “makes us rather bear the ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of” — you know? But it doesn’t have to be the ills we have. It could be the things we have. Many people are always looking beyond what they have, the grass-is-greener syndrome. I’m just focusing and being content with the immediate things that surround me.
What I did in the New York City Police Department totally overwhelmed me. When I was going through all that, I had thoughts of writing the president, and I thought, it’s all bullshit. They’re all the same. I remembered what had happened years ago, the first time my taxes got audited as a cop. This was in the ’50s. I had an accountant, one a lot of cops I knew used. And he comes to me and says, listen, you’re going to be audited, and it’s going to cost you this much, but I know the guy, and I think $100 will cover it. And I said, bullshit!
It goes way back. I knew how many of them could be bought. I didn’t have the confidence in the system, that I could write a letter and believe it would make a difference. Again, it’s the typical American epic, the belief when I reach Mr. “X,” he’ll come down on his white horse and save me and make everything good again. There isn’t any man on a white horse who’s going to make it good for us. It’s either we make it good, by ourselves, and for ourselves, or we may as well forget it. People write me and say, “Right-on, Brother!” Well, “Right on” isn’t enough. It doesn’t end there. If you believe it does, you’re perpetuating the fantasy, helping to fuel the old American epic. I’m only one man, and I don’t own any white horse.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 28, 2020