Serpico in 2013
Francesco Vincent Serpico
April 14, 1936
|Nationality||United States, Italy|
|Other names||Paco, Serpico|
|Known for||Whistleblower on police corruption and subsequent shooting|
|Department||New York Police Department|
|Awards||NYPD Medal of Honor|
Francesco Vincent Serpico (born April 14, 1936) is a former New York City Police Department (NYPD) officer who holds both American and Italian citizenship. He is known for whistleblowing on police corruption in the late 1960s and early 1970s, an act that prompted Mayor John V. Lindsay to appoint the landmark Knapp Commission to investigate the NYPD. Much of Serpico's fame came after the release of the 1973 film Serpico, which was based on the book by Peter Maas and which starred Al Pacino in the title role, for which Pacino received an Oscar nomination.
Serpico was born in Brooklyn, New York City, 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.
On September 11, 1959, Serpico joined the New York City Police Department (NYPD) as a probationary patrolman, and became a full patrolman on March 5, 1960. He was assigned to the 81st precinct, then worked for the Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI) for two years. He was finally assigned to work plainclothes, where he uncovered widespread corruption.
Serpico was a plainclothes police officer working in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan to expose vice racketeering. In 1967, he reported credible evidence of widespread systematic police corruption. Nothing happened until he met another police officer, David Durk, who helped him. Serpico believed his partners knew about his secret meetings with police investigators. Finally, he contributed to an April 25, 1970, New York Times front-page story on widespread corruption in the NYPD, which drew national attention to the problem. Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed a five-member panel to investigate accusations of police corruption. The panel became the Knapp Commission, named after its chairman, Whitman Knapp.
Serpico was shot during a drug arrest attempt on February 3, 1971, at 778 Driggs Avenue, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Four officers from the Brooklyn North police precinct received a tip that a drug deal was about to take place. Two policemen, Gary Roteman and Arthur Cesare, stayed outside, while the third, Paul Halley, stood in front of the apartment building. Serpico climbed up the fire escape, entered by the fire escape door, went downstairs, listened for the password, then followed two suspects outside.
The police arrested the young suspects, and found one had two bags of heroin. Halley stayed with the suspects, and Roteman told Serpico, who spoke Spanish, to make a fake purchase attempt to get the drug dealers to open the door. The police went to the third-floor landing. Serpico knocked on the door, keeping his hand on his revolver. The door opened a few inches, just far enough to wedge his body in. Serpico called for help, but his fellow officers ignored him.
Serpico was then shot in the face by the suspect with a .22 LR pistol. The bullet struck just below the eye, lodging at the top of his jaw. He fired back, fell to the floor, and began to bleed profusely. His police colleagues refused to make a "10-13" dispatch to police headquarters, indicating that an officer had been shot. An elderly man who lived in the next apartment called the emergency services, reporting that a man had been shot, and stayed with Serpico. When a police car arrived, aware that Serpico was a fellow officer, they transported him in the patrol car to Greenpoint Hospital.
The bullet had severed an auditory nerve, leaving him deaf in one ear, and he has since suffered from chronic pain from bullet fragments lodged in his brain. He was visited the day after the shooting by Mayor John V. Lindsay and Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy, and the police department harassed him with hourly bed checks. He later testified before the Knapp Commission.
The circumstances surrounding Serpico's shooting quickly came into question. Serpico, who was armed during the drug raid, had been shot only after briefly turning away from the suspect, when he realized that the two officers who had accompanied him to the scene were not following him into the apartment, raising the question whether Serpico had actually been brought to the apartment by his colleagues to be murdered. There was no formal investigation.
On May 3, 1971, New York Metro Magazine published an article about Serpico, "Portrait of an Honest Cop". On May 10, 1971, he testified at the departmental trial of an NYPD lieutenant, who was accused of taking bribes from gamblers.
In October, and again in December 1971, Serpico testified before the Knapp Commission:
Through my appearance here today ... I hope that police officers in the future will not experience ... the same frustration and anxiety that I was subjected to ... for the past five years at the hands of my superiors ... because of my attempt to report corruption. I was made to feel that I had burdened them with an unwanted task. 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. Police corruption cannot exist unless it is at least tolerated ... at higher levels in the department. Therefore, the most important result that can come from these hearings ... is a conviction by police officers that the department will change. In order to ensure this ... an independent, permanent investigative body ... dealing with police corruption, like this commission, is essential ...
Serpico was the first police officer in the history of the New York City Police Department to step forward to report and subsequently testify openly about widespread, systemic corruption payoffs amounting to millions of dollars.
Serpico retired on June 15, 1972, one month after receiving the New York City Police Department's highest honor, the Medal of Honor. There was no ceremony; according to Serpico, it was simply handed to him over the desk "like a pack of cigarettes". He went to Switzerland to recuperate and spent almost a decade living there and on a farm in the Netherlands, as well as traveling and studying.
While travelling in Europe during 1979 to 1980, Frank Serpico lived in Orissor college in Corwen, he was one of the founders and Director of Orissor which used to be known as the Old Union Work House and more recently Corwen Manor (His signature is on the deeds). He was well known in and around Corwen and frequently mixed in the towns pubs, some of the older towns folk remember him well. After a disagreement with Orissor he stayed for a few weeks in a B&B before he returning to New York City in 1980. When it was decided to make the movie about his life called Serpico, Al Pacino invited Serpico to stay with him at a house that Pacino had rented in Montauk, New York. Pacino asked why he had stepped forward, and Serpico replied, "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?" He has credited his grandfather who had once been assaulted and robbed, and his uncle, a respected policeman in Italy, with his sense of justice.
Serpico still speaks out about police brutality, civil liberties, and police corruption, such as the attempted cover-ups following Abner Louima's torture in 1997 and Amadou Diallo's shooting in 1999. He provides support to "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", which refers to alerting the public to danger, in the spirit of Paul Revere's midnight ride during the American Revolutionary War.
A policeman's first obligation is to be responsible to the needs of the community he serves ... 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. We create an atmosphere in which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer, and not the other way around.
Among police officers, his actions are still controversial, but Eugene O'Donnell, professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, states that "he becomes more of a heroic figure with every passing year."
On August 19, 2017, Serpico gave a speech which was broadcast live on Facebook as he stood with NYPD police officers in New York City on the bank of the East River at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge in support of Colin Kaepernick, for his protests alleging a culture of police brutality. Serpico was quoted, "I am here to support anyone who has the courage to stand up against injustice and oppression anywhere in this country and the world."
As a result of Serpico's efforts, the NYPD was drastically changed. Michael Armstrong, who was counsel to the Knapp Commission and went on to become chairman of the city's Commission to Combat Police Corruption, observed in 2012 "the attitude throughout the department seems fundamentally hostile to the kind of systemized graft that had been a way of life almost 40 years ago." Also in the late 1970s and early 1980s, vice laws were generally unenforced to prevent police corruption. Consequently, bookmakers and drug dealers often operated openly out of storefronts, while prostitutes openly advertised and often plied their wares in various "red-light" sections of the city.
On June 15, 1972, Serpico left both the NYPD and U.S. to move to Europe. In 1973, he lived with a woman named Marianne (a native of the Netherlands), whom he wed in a "spiritual marriage"; she died from cancer in 1980. He decided to return to the United States afterwards.
His only child, son Alexander, was born March 15, 1980 out of marriage. After going to a tribunal to contest child support payments to the mother, who had Serpico claims told him she was on the contraceptive pill (an allegation she denied), the tribunal ruled he had to pay around $900 per month.
On June 27, 2013, the USA Section of ANPS (National Association of Italian State Police) assigned him the "Saint Michael Archangel Prize", an official award by the Italian State Police with the Sponsorship of the Italian Ministry of Interior. Francesco Serpico is now an Italian citizen: during the same ceremony, he received his first Italian passport after extended research by the president of ANPS USA, Chief Inspector Cirelli, who established the Jus sanguinis, allowing him to gain Italian citizenship.