Photo: Frank Serpico
Frank Serpico is the legendary whistleblower who exposed high levels of widespread corruption within his 13-year employment as a police officer for the New York Police Department. He served as a plain-clothes undercover officer, and while his methods and eccentric personality ostracized him from other members of the department, it was ultimately his breaking of the “blue wall of silence,” which led to his widespread scorn and detest among the majority of officers within the NYPD. The breaking of the “blue wall of silence,” refers to Serpico’s “lamp-lighting,” and public exposure of departmental corruption within the NYPD, by refraining from continuing to withhold his personal experience and knowledge of his fellow officers repeatedly and continually breaking the law for their own personal financial gain.
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The courage that Frank Serpico displayed in coming forward with his testimonial of the rampant police corruption is admirable, and finally fifty years after his decision to testify to this criminal behavior, the NYPD and current Mayor of New York, Eric Adams are honoring him for his bravery. Frank Serpico risked his life to uncover the festering corruption in a field that is charged with the duty to uphold the law. He has proven that in the face of true injustice and adversity that one should, “Never run when you’re right,” in the words of his own father.
Who Is Frank Serpico?
Frank Serpico first joined the New York Police Department in 1959, and on March 5, 1960, had become a fully initiated patrolman. Soon into his career as a police officer for the NYPD, he became aware of low-level corruption and the involvement of multiple officers within the department who were “grafting,” a term that conveys the fact that they were associated with taking bribes and other forms of unacceptable police corruption. Serpico, who wanted no part of this unlawful behavior, especially with the people who are charged with the duty of upholding the law, quickly became unpopular within the police department due to his refusal to take his cut of the bribes.
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The other officers who were responsible for this illegal activity grew to dislike him more and more, and word spread throughout the department that Serpico, who was an honest and hardworking officer, was not someone that could be trusted or even was worthy of their respect and camaraderie-ship. As Frank Serpico’s career progressed in the department, or more accurately due to his high sense of morality and incorruptibility, didn’t, he became further aware of the far-reaching extent of the corruption that was occurring in NYPD. The film ‘Serpico,’ directed by Sidney Lumet, suggests that this rampant corruption was known by the Police Commissioner, and even the Mayor at the time.
It was only when Frank Serpico and his friend, police officer David Durk, finally went to the newspaper, the New York Times, with the story of departmental corruption that Mayor John Lindsay finally opened an investigation into the bribery, grafting, and countless other illegal activities that were being committed by members of the NYPD. According to the film, ‘Serpico,’ after Frank Serpico’s confession to his Police Chief at that time, more than three years passed before Serpico and Durk went to the New York Times with their story. During that time, the Chief had informed Serpico that he had contacted the Police Commissioner with Frank’s testimony and that the Commissioner would contact him “when the time was right.” Frank was never contacted and after countless efforts and numerous battles to expose this corruption within the confines of the NYPD, he was forced to bring the story to the New York Times and expose the very department that he was tasked with serving.
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This action by Serpico choosing to expose the corruption within the NYPD, only further led to other officers’ hatred and malice towards him. It is common knowledge within police departments that those who choose to whistleblow, or in Frank Serpico’s words, “lamplight,” often become pariahs and are subject to growing hostility or even physical retaliation from those who serve alongside them. Serpico received various threats for his actions and was even shot in the face in 1971, when his fellow officers failed to provide backup for him in a life-threatening situation. Serpico would go on to survive this gunshot, and later that year would give his famous testimonial at the Knapp Commission which was an inquiry and investigation into this widespread police corruption. In 1972, he retired from the police force but still resents the NYPD for driving him out of their department as he recently elaborated, “I was robbed. It was not only my profession, which I loved, to me, it was a calling.”
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Why Was There A Movie Made About Him?
The film ‘Serpico’ directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Al Pacino is incredibly accurate and reflects the importance of Frank Serpico’s heroism. It captures the tension and difficulty that Frank Serpico faced in his life just by simply wanting to do the right thing. He is a man of incredible resilience and morality and even in the face of what appeared to be a vast majority of crooked police, Frank continued to fight and stand up for his beliefs. The movie effectively humanizes the story of Frank Serpico and shows the sacrifice he made in life simply by refusing to allow his integrity to be bought and paid for. In fact, Frank Serpico almost lost his life in the service of his convictions. In a narcotics raid on a heroin deal, Frank was trapped in a deadly situation where he attempted to break down a door leading to the den of drug dealers.
While trying to burst through the entryway of the criminal operation, he became trapped in a doorway while a criminal was trying to lock him out. Frank Serpico was left without back-up or protection by his fellow officers as they remained outside the door and watched onward as the criminal poked a revolver through the opening and shot Serpico in the face, just below his left eye. While the next series of events are still debated, Frank Serpico has “maintained that the other officers he was with never made a call for an ‘officer down.’”
It has also been noted that both backup officers fled after he was shot, leaving him dying on the floor, as well as the fact that the officer who responded to the 911 call was heard saying, “If I knew it was Serpico, I would have left him there to bleed to death.” In spite of all of this, Frank Serpico miraculously survived and later that year testified at the Knapp Commission, stating, “We create an atmosphere in which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer and not the other way around.” The consequence of Frank Serpico’s decision to expose the corruption of the NYPD was at the cost of his life, and yet Serpico did not shy from what he considered to be his duty to his fellow citizens. He truly is a hero to be celebrated and admired.
Why Has It Taken Fifty-Years for The NYPD to Honor His Legacy?
After fifty years, Frank Serpico is finally being awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest honor and medal that can be granted to a member of the police force, for his bravery and fight for justice. Frank Serpico had previously been awarded this medal when he was shot in the line of duty, but it was reported by the New York Daily News that it was unceremoniously handed to him over a counter-top “without the certificate or any formal recognition.” This is an extremely unconventional way of commending an officer for their exceptional heroism, and in previous years there have been large ceremonies and parades to honor the medal’s recipients.
In an interview with journalist Larry McShane in 2014, Frank Serpico told him that he was still “waiting for the NYPD to overcome their pettiness and animosity.” It was in another interview earlier this year (2022) that Frank Serpico told McShane that he still was waiting to receive an official Medal of Honor from the New York Police Department. It was only when recently elected Mayor and former New York policeman, Eric Adams, reached out to Frank and said, “Frank Serpico’s bravery inspired my law enforcement career.
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Frank — we’re going to make sure you get your medal,” that led to Serpico finally receiving the credit and commendation that he so rightfully deserves. It has taken fifty years and one can not say for certain without the intervention by Mayor-elect Adams that Frank would have ever received official recognition for his struggle for justice. The length of disregard and reprehensible treatment of Frank Serpico is a stain on the integrity of the NYPD. It perfectly reflects the change that is needed now more than ever in law enforcement, as well as the conduct and handling of the very men who stand for equality and the promotion of peace and prosperity.
By Thomas Jacobs
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Thomas Jacobs is an avid writer, Cinema aficionado, and filmmaker. He graduated with Dean’s Honors from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a major in Film and Digital Media. His passion is directly tied to the appreciation and creation of film and television, and this fact is reflected in his intent to be a writer for the acclaimed entertainment journal, The Hollywood Insider. His beliefs mirror the core goals and mission statement of The Hollywood Insider by sharing an admiration for quality entertainment as well as bolstering a sense of positivity and equality among all humans. Thomas believes that Cinema is an advantageous promoter of civil and social empowerment, and he shares a mutual societal view with The Hollywood Insider, that people should not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.