Our April 14th New Yorker Birthday Honoree is Frank Serpico, now 84 Years Old.
“People have got to understand that it’s just as patriotic to try to keep your country from dying, as it is to die for your country.” - Frank Serpico
A famous and legendary whistleblower, in 1971 Frank Serpico became the first New York City policeman in history to testify about widespread corruption in the department. In 1972 he received the NYPD's highest award, The Medal of Honor. After being shot and testifying about corruption in the NYPD, Serpico lived in Europe for nearly a decade. Al Pacino played Serpico in the 1973 movie about his life and a documentary film was made in 2017. His best-selling biography is by Peter Maas.
Frank Serpico was born in Brooklyn on April 14, 1936, the youngest child of Vincenzo and Maria Giovanna Serpico, Italian immigrants from Marigliano, Naples, Campania. At the age of 17, he enlisted in the United States Army and was stationed for two years in South Korea as an infantryman. He then worked as a part-time private investigator and a youth counselor while attending Brooklyn College and later achieved a B.S. degree from the City College of New York.
Serpico became a New York City policeman in 1960 at age 23. By the early 1970s, he had gained both kudos and notoriety as the man who blew the whistle on corruption in New York's police department. Serpico, who served on both uniformed and plainclothes patrol in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem, was bothered by what he saw as the department's widespread corruption and bribery by his fellow officers. With hippie-like looks, he gained the distrust of a series of partners and other policemen by refusing to take bribes and speaking with his department superiors about corruption,
Serpico's career as a plainclothes police detective to expose vice racketeering was short-lived, however, because he swam against the tide of corruption that engulfed the NYPD during the late sixties and early seventies. Not only did he consistently refuse to take bribes for "looking the other way," he risked his own safety to expose those who did. In 1967 he reported to appropriate officials "credible evidence of widespread, systemic police corruption."
It was not until April 1970, however, when the New York Times published an explosive story, that Mayor John Lindsay took action and appointed the Knapp Commission to investigate. As a consequence of his testimony before the commission, Serpico was ostracized by his peers and as some believe, ultimately "set up" to be shot during a drug raid in which he was seriously wounded and his fellow officers did not call for assistance. This incident took place on February 3, 1971, at 778 Driggs Avenue, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
He survived but lost his hearing in his left ear. Serpico resigned from the force following the incident and traveled to Europe. He lived in Holland and married before eventually returning to the U.S. after living 10 years abroad, settling in upstate New York.
In the 2017 documentary film, “Frank Serpico” directed by Antonino D’Ambrosio, he revisits his old ground-floor apartment on Perry Street. "It’s empty, and as he wanders around he seems to go back in time. While most cops went home to their wives and kids in the suburbs, Serpico preferred the company of aspiring artists, writers, actors, dancers and models. He loved the ballet and the opera, and hanging out in coffee shops in the Village discussing books on philosophy. Many of his friends had no idea he was a policeman until his name started appearing in the papers once the Knapp Commission began investigating his charges." (NY Post, 4/24/17)/
Serpico continues to speak out against both the weakening of civil liberties and corrupt practices in law enforcement, such as the attempted cover-up following the Amadou Diallo shooting in 1999. He provides support for "individuals who seek truth and justice even in the face of great personal risk." He calls them "lamp lighters," a term he prefers to the more common "whistleblowers," because it evokes memories of the historic ride in which Paul Revere made a great deal of noise and caused the lanterns to be lit.
The underlying motivation behind Serpico to “light the lamp” flows from an unbreakable sense of ethics. In the 2017 documentary "Frank Serpico" he shares a story about a confrontation his father, an Italian-immigrant cobbler in Brooklyn, had with a police officer who never paid for his shoeshines. After confronting the officer, Serpico’s father tells his young son: “Never run when you’re right.” That lesson formed the foundation for how Serpico continues to live in the world.
Modern day Serpicos: Crime + Punishment, a 2018 documentary directed by Stephen Maing, features a group of New York Police Officers and one detective chronicles the real lives and struggles of a group of black and Latino whistleblower cops and the young minorities they are pressured to arrest and summons in New York City. It can be viewed on Hulu network.