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Frank Serpico '54

 Al Pacino as Frank Serpico in Serpico.


In 1959, Frank Serpico joined the NYPD. He was sworn in as a probationary patrolman on September 11, 1959. He was handed his shield and immediately went out and got it replated so it would be shiny and garner the utmost respect. His swearing in was the culmination of a lifetime dream of becoming what he respected most: a cop.

Serpico was commissioned as a patrolman for the New York City Police Department on March 5, 1960, a job he would have for twelve years. He was first assigned to patrol in the 81st precinct; he then worked for the Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI) for two years, doing jobs such as filing fingerprints. Serpico was later assigned to work plainclothes, where he encountered widespread corruption.

Serpico's career as a plainclothes police detective working in Brooklyn and the Bronx to expose vice racketeering was short-lived, however, because he consistently avoided taking part in the corruption. Serpico refused to take bribes for "looking the other way", and risked his own safety to expose those who did. In 1967, he reported "credible evidence of widespread, systematic police corruption." However, bureaucracy slowed down his efforts, until he connected with another cop, David Durk, who helped him in his anti-corruption efforts.

In 1970, Serpico went public on police corruption, speaking of bribery and kickbacks. Serpico received numerous death threats, having testified against a former partner. Somehow they knew of Serpico's supposedly secret meetings with top police investigators. It was not until April 25, 1970, however, when the New York Times published a front-page story on rampant corruption in the New York City Police Department, that Mayor John V. Lindsay took action and appointed a five member panel to investigate police corruption. This panel ultimately became the Knapp Commission, named for its chairman, Whitman Knapp.

Serpico was shot during a drug bust on February 3, 1971 at 10:42 P.M., during a stake out at 778 Driggs Avenue, in Brooklyn, New York. Four cops from Brooklyn North had gotten a tip that a drug deal was going down. It seemed like a routine heroin bust.

The two officers Gary Roteman and Arthur Cesare stayed in a car out front; the third Paul Halley was standing in front of the apartment building. Serpico got out of the car, climbed up the fire escape, watched from the roof, went out the fire escape door, walked down the steps, watched the heroin buy, listened to the password and then followed the two kids out.

The police jumped out at the two kids, one of whom had two bags of heroin. Halley stayed in the car with the two kids with the heroin when Roteman told Serpico to make a fake drug buy to get the door open for the rest of them, because he spoke Spanish. Three officers went up the steps to the third-floor landing. Serpico knocked on the door with his other hand inside his jacket on his .38. The door opened a few inches, the chain still on. Serpico pushed and the chain snapped. It was enough for him to wedge part of his body in but the dealers on the other side were trying to close it. Serpico called out to his partners who did not come to help him.

Serpico was shot in the face at point blank range with a .22 LR handgun. The bullet penetrated his cheek just below the eye and lodged at the top of his jaw; he lost balance, fell to the floor, and began to bleed profusely. Serpico's colleagues failed to place a "10-13", a dispatch to police headquarters indicating that an officer has been shot. Instead, Serpico was saved by an elderly Hispanic man who lived in an apartment adjacent to the one being used by the suspects; the man called 911 and reported that a man had been shot, and then stayed with Serpico to help keep him alive until an ambulance arrived. A police squad car arrived prior to the ambulance, however, and the officers, unaware of the bloodied Serpico's identity, took him to Greenpoint Hospital.

Serpico was deafened in his left ear by the gunshot, which severed an auditory nerve, and has suffered chronic pain from fragments lodged in his brain. Although he was visited the day after the shooting by Mayor John V. Lindsay and Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy, while he lay recovering in bed from his wounds, the police department harassed him with hourly bed checks. He survived, and ultimately testified in front of the Knapp Commission.

The circumstances surrounding Serpico's shooting quickly came into question. Serpico, who was armed and holding a .38 snub-nose during the drug raid, had only been shot 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, bringing into question if Serpico had actually been brought to the apartment by his colleagues to be executed.

On May 3, 1971, New York Metro Magazine published an article about Serpico titled "Portrait Of An Honest Cop". On May 10, 1971, Serpico testified at the departmental trial of an NYPD police lieutenant who was accused of taking bribes from gamblers. On May 14, 1971, Serpico was given a gold shield by the Police Commissioner and promoted to Detective. In September 1971, Gadfly Magazine published an article which also included all the details about how he was shot in the face.

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... We create an atmosphere in which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer, and not the other way around... The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which honest police officers can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers." Frank Serpico was the first police officer in the history of the United States to step forward to report and subsequently testify openly about widespread, systemic police corruption payoffs amounting to millions of dollars.

One month after receiving the New York City Police Department's highest honor, the Medal of Honor, Frank Serpico retired on June 15, 1972. He went to Europe to recuperate and spent almost a decade there, living, traveling and studying. While traveling and studying in Europe, Frank was detained, strip searched, and warned by Customs Agents who said, "if we want you, we got you."[citation needed] Worse, when he attempted to start a new life in Europe, his 29-year-old wife whom he had met there died of cancer. Probably as a consequence of all these occurrences, he had to cope with long-term depression.

When they decided to make the movie about Frank's life called Serpico, Al Pacino invited Frank Serpico to stay with him at a house that Pacino had rented in Montauk, New York. When Pacino asked Serpico, "Why did you do it?" 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 returned to New York City quietly in 1980. He currently resides in the mountains of New York State, studying and lecturing on occasion to students at universities and police academies and sharing experiences with police officers who are currently going through similar experiences. He still speaks out against police corruption and brutality. Frank has studied various cultures and speaks a number of languages. He has also studied animal and human behavior, alternative medicine, music, art, literature and philosophy among other disciplines. He continues to speak out against both the weakening of civil liberties and corrupt practices in law enforcement, such as the alleged 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.

Serpico, a biography by Peter Maas, sold over 3 million copies. It was adapted for the screenplay of the 1973 film titled Serpico, which was directed by Sidney Lumet and starred Al Pacino in the title role. In 1976 David Birney starred as Serpico in a TV-movie called The Deadly Game, broadcast on NBC. This led to a short-lived Serpico TV series the following fall on the same network.