Now 89, Frank Serpico is famous for exposing police corruption in New York between the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. He was the first officer to testify against a fellow officer.
Name: Frank Serpico
Born: April 14th 1936
Occupation: Law Enforcement
Place of Birth: Brooklyn, New York
Frank Serpico was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1936 and became a New York City police officer in 1959. He served for 12 years. He is renowned for reporting and exposing corruption within the New York City police department. In 1971, he testified against colleagues in the Knapp Commission. This led to him being disliked by colleagues who refused to come to his aid when he was shot on duty during a drug raid in 1971. After moving to the Netherlands during retirement, he returned to the US and now lives in upstate New York.
Serpico was born on April 14th in Brooklyn, New York. He was the youngest child of Vincenzo and Maria Giovanna Serpico, Italian immigrants from Marigliano, a province of Naples.
At the age of 17, Serpico joined the United States Army and was stationed in South Korea for two years, as an infantryman. Once out of the army, he worked as a private investigator and a youth counsellor while he attended Brooklyn College.
In September 1959, Serpico joined the New York City police department as a probationary patrolman. He became a full patrolman on March 5th 1960 and was assigned to the 81st precinct. Serpico then worked for the Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI) for two years before he was finally assigned to work plainclothes. It is here he discovered widespread corruption.
Corruption in the NYPD
During his time working as both a uniformed and plainclothes officer in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem, Serpico was bothered by what he saw as the department’s widespread corruption and bribery by his fellow officers. Serpico refused to take bribes and spoke to his department superiors about corruption in the force. This earned him the distrust of his colleagues and partners.
In 1967, Serpico reported credible evidence of corruption and bribery to his department superiors. However, it was ignored, and nothing was done. Serpico met another officer, David Durk, who was willing to help him expose the widespread corruption within the department. However, Serpico believed his colleagues and partners knew about his secret meeting with police investigators.
On April 25th 1970, The New York Times published a front-page story on widespread corruption in the NYPD. Serpico was instrumental in providing the information for this article, and it was only his contributions that made it possible. This article prompted Mayor John V Lindsay to launch a proper investigation into the allegations. He appointed a five-member panel, headed by Whitman Knapp, to investigate charges of corruption and it became known as the Knapp Commission.
Serpico was finally able to testify before the Knapp Commission and was the first police officer to testify voluntarily against a fellow officer.
Serpico seemingly paid for his perceived disloyalty to the NYPD when he was shot during a drug raid and fellow officers refused to come to his aid.
On February 3rd 1971, Serpico attended a drug raid with three other officers. After arresting two drug users outside the property, Serpico attempted to gain access to the apartment the drugs were being dealt from. His fellow officers would follow him, and he was shot in the head. The accompanying officers didn’t call in that they were an officer down, it was left to an elderly neighbour to call for an ambulance.
Serpico survived the shooting but lost his hearing in his left ear and has suffered from chronic pain caused by bullet fragments lodged in his brain.
Serpico left the force in 1972 after receiving the medal of honour from the NYPD. He then moved to Europe.
Serpico lived and travelled around Europe before returning to live in upstate New York. In 1973, a movie starring Al Pacino was made about his life and his involvement in exposing corruption in the NYPD.
When Pacino asked Serpico why he had stepped forward to expose the corruption, Serpico responded, “Well, Al, I don’t know. I guess I would have to say it would be because… if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?”
Serpico still speaks out about corruption in the police force, brutality and the weakening of civil liberties. He also provides support to individuals who he says, “seek truth and justice even in the face of great personal risk”.