On February 3rd, 1971, detective Frank Serpico was shot in the face. The bullet tore the skin right under his eye, lodging at the top of his jaw. Some say he had it coming. Some say he was too bold, too outspoken, too dangerous for New York City’s rapacious, corrupted police department. While his fellow officers shamelessly snatched bribe money from the palms of gamblers and criminals, Serpico didn’t. And he wasn’t willing to keep quiet about it.
He broke the code of silence and marched to the most influential media outlet in the city – The New York Times.
Since the story broke, his bravery was recounted in an autobiographical memoir and later immortalized by Al Pacino in Serpico’s 1973 cop drama.
It’s been more than four decades since he blew the whistle, and, sadly, we’re not sure how much has changed. For the sake of making the world a better place, let’s remind ourselves of this great man’s story.
Serpico learned from an early age that the world wasn’t really fair. When his shabby toy gun was stolen from him by two neighborhood bullies, he chased them down from block to block until they disappeared in a sea of traffic, leaving him bewildered as to why someone would commit such a crime.
Street crime had a long-lasting effect on him growing up, and he found it hard to turn a blind eye to it. His eyes seemed to have a life of their own, drawing him to things like watching someone steal a pie wagon to spotting a dead body outside his window.
Gradually, things began to crystallize in his naïve mind. Cops were the good guys. Criminals were the bad guys. Cops caught criminals. Simple as that. Or so he thought.
The youngest of four, Frank was born in Brooklyn in the late ‘30s to two Italian immigrants, Vincenzo and Maria. The foreign couple arrived in the States with little money, high hopes, and a hard-working attitude which they passed on to their little ones. Frank and his siblings learned to be independent, honest, and resourceful.
The Serpicos lived in a working-class neighborhood, in a small flat, where the only heat they ever enjoyed came from the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. They were frugal people, burning scraps from the shoe shop to keep the flame going for long periods of time.
Despite living in the city, Frank’s dad, Vincenzo, wasn’t willing to distance himself from nature. He cultivated an urban garden in the backyard of their modest little home, where all the waste from the kitchen would be thrown on the ground, buried, and used as compost to grow tomatoes, peppers, and arugula.
Frank spent his afternoons digging, planting, watering, and playing with his siblings. His sister, Tina, recalled how they used to run outside with broomsticks. They used their imagination to craft up different games with whatever they had on hand.
Frank loved the idea of serving others, and he believed that being a cop was the ultimate way for him to achieve that. He didn’t view the role as being forceful, violent, full of fast cars and loud guns. It’s not that he was living in la-la land. It was just that he genuinely felt that being a cop was more about befriending and protecting the weak instead of marching around the city like a pompous clown.
That’s why he was crushed when he realized that some officers were abusing their power. He caught his first glimpse of unfavorable police behavior when a cop came by his dad’s shoe shop one day, asked to have his shoes polished, and then walked away without paying when the deed was done.
In his teens, Frank enrolled in the Saint Francis Preparatory Academy. The school’s application required him to fill in his “career goal,” and he wrote, “plainclothesman” – a cop who wears ordinary clothes to disguise himself while on duty. It was clear as day to him; he would be a crime-fighting man of the law.
His favorite radio program growing up was a dramatic little show called Gangbusters. It dealt with different police cases, and every time it came on, Frank would huddle under the covers and listen closely. “It would be very exciting because you would hear these police sirens and screeching cars and machine-gun fire,” he explained, “and then the host would go: And now! Another thrilling episode of Gangbusters!”
A tough, streetwise kid, Serpico worked different jobs to make a living. He spent some of his afternoons shining shoes in his dad’s shop and others outside selling fresh produce off a fruit and vegetable truck. To get away from all the hustle and bustle of the city, he would head to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, his personal haven.
Out of high school and with little money in his pocket, Serpico decided it was time to leave his comfort zone. He enlisted in the army and spent two years in Korea, where he absorbed Asian culture. He was already fluent in Italian, French, Spanish, and now, he was learning Korean and Japanese.
Serpico came back to America, revitalized and ready to become a man of the law, a crime-fighting justice warrior. He went to Brooklyn College to study police science and took the New York City Police Department exam. To get a taste of actual police life, he worked as a private investigator for New York’s youth board.
Finally, in the fall of 1959, he was given the great news that he had passed the police exam. He took his oath, loud and proud, put on his uniform, and headed out to the streets. Unfortunately, Serpico was a bit naïve about police culture. And he was about to find out just how naïve he really was.
The police had their way of… doing business, so to speak. They had well-established behavioral patterns that Serpico couldn’t really stomach. He didn’t want free food or free service. He didn’t want to feel superior to anyone. “Just because you had a uniform and a badge didn’t mean that you had special privileges,” he once stated.
The only thing Serpico wanted to do was his job. And he wanted to do it right. But he was soon to find out that he was the odd one out.
He quickly realized that there was one subject the police academy left out in their curriculum – corruption.
Serpico once said that 10% of police officers are honest, another 10% are corrupt, and the other 80% WANT to be honest. But it’s tough because the 10 percent of corrupt officers terrorize whoever wants to do good.
At first, he was stunned to see his fellow cops grabbing money from the dirty palms of gamblers and drug dealers. He couldn’t believe that silence was something that could be bought. It made no sense to him. As a new recruit, he didn’t rush to tell anyone just yet, but he also didn’t take any money for himself. This deeply concerned his partners.
In 1960, 23-year-old Serpico was assigned to the 81st precinct in Brooklyn. He hit the streets day and night, making multiple arrests per shift. And while he believed his bosses would be proud of him, he couldn’t have been more wrong. “Every time I would make an arrest, I found I was annoying the lieutenant,” Serpico explained.
His boss was interested in climbing the police ladder, so he spent his evenings studying to become captain. And Serpico’s constant arrests were nothing but a nuisance to him. “I didn’t hit it off with my bosses,” he admitted.
Serpico annoyed his officers by refusing to take hush money, he annoyed them by making arrests, and he REALLY annoyed them when he made off-duty arrests. They treated him as if he were the criminal in the whole shebang. He started to seriously question his job.
One day, when he made an off-duty arrest in his precinct, he was called to the department and grilled by his angry superiors. They wanted to know what he was doing out there. He explained that he was walking his girlfriend home and had no intentions of arresting anyone, but when he saw the crime unfold in front of his eyes, he knew he had to stop it. Needless to say, his explanation didn’t do much to calm their nerves.
Serpico’s always-on-the-job attitude made him the most hated guy in the department. And not only that, but his scruffy appearance got on their nerves as well. He sported a beard and long hair, an uncommon look for a police officer at the time. A look that was often associated with weird, bohemian vagabonds.
In a way (a good way), Serpico really was a bit weird. He wrote poetry, appreciated ballet, watched foreign films, and dove deep into philosophical books. His fellow cops couldn’t relate to him in any way. And on top of all that – he refused to take bribe money, which was their biggest issue with him.
In the early ‘60s, Serpico moved to Greenwich Village, a neighborhood in New York flooded with hippies and a whole lot of drugs. With his laid-back looks, he fit right in. Serpico hid the fact that he was a cop. Instead, he told people that he was a tour guide who gave bicycle tours around town.
No one suspected him. And who could blame them? His looks, as well as his apartment, complimented his made-up story. His house was full of plants, and he owned a bunch of animals, including a rabbit, a cat, a dog, a few crickets, and a couple of fish. It was like “a garden living in the middle of the city,” his former girlfriend, Susan Pottle, noted.
When Serpico got transferred to the plainclothes squad in the mid-‘60s, he was over the moon. It was one step closer to a gold detective shield. That being said, he had his hesitations. The squad had a reputation of being dirty, and he voiced his concerns about it to his captain.
His superior gave him a simple and small-minded response: “Frank, no one could make you do what you don’t want to do.” The response didn’t satisfy Serpico, but he shrugged it off. For now, he felt that there wasn’t much he could do.
As it turns out, the plainclothesmen weren’t willing to let Serpico off the hook. They NEEDED him to get in on the bribe with them. They knew that if Frank wasn’t willing to take the money, he was clean, which meant that he could rat on them at any second.
They wouldn’t let Frank do his job. They wouldn’t let him arrest the bad guys. Serpico even told them, “Hey, you want to take payoffs, that’s your thing. I don’t take any money.” But that didn’t help. They knew that if Serpico wasn’t in on the deal, none of them were safe.
To be fair, not everyone was corrupt. But even the honest cops were struggling to be honest because, on the one hand, they knew that what was happening was wrong, but on the other hand, they couldn’t bring themselves to turn the corrupt ones in. There was a deafening silence across the department.
That is until Serpico received an envelope with $300 worth of hush money from a fellow officer. That was the final straw. Serpico took the cash and reported it to his superior.
This will probably come as no surprise: Serpico discovered that his captain not only knew what was going on but was apparently in on it.
Sickened by his new revelation, Serpico didn’t know where else to go. His captain basically told him, “Get out of here, or you’re going to be found in a river.” But instead of running off and keeping quiet, he took the envelope and stormed into his sergeant’s office.
The sergeant’s response was even more sickening. He simply ripped open the envelope, took the money, and put it in his pocket. Without looking him in the eye, the sergeant muttered “thank you” and signaled him to leave the room.
After the incident, Serpico was transferred to a new command in the Bronx. He hoped the guys were cleaner than his old squad but was heavily disappointed when he discovered they weren’t. The only difference here was that Serpico’s partner didn’t want the others to know he was clean, so he pocketed Serpico’s cut.
For a while, things were quiet. Until Serpico got a new partner, who innocently handed him his cut one shift, to which Serpico responded with a definite no. His new partner was shocked and immediately reported to the rest of the guys, “There’s trouble on our team.”
The whole Bronx squad went nuts over the fact that Serpico was a squeaky-clean officer. They were furious for two reasons. 1. He posed a threat. 2. They’d been cheated out of his share for almost a year. Gradually, Frank felt the walls closing in on him. He knew he needed to call for help.
He contacted an officer he trusted named David Durk, who, apart from being a cop, was also connected to the politically powerful. Durk took Serpico to officials in the police department at City Hall and the District Attorney’s Office, where he spilled the beans on the corrupted behavior that was poisoning the department. In return, they promised him they would do something about it.
“I kept waiting for the good guys to show up,” Serpico admitted. “I was told just keep your eyes and ears open. We’re sending somebody there to help you. But they never did.” Serpico was bounced from official to official for two exhausting years.
Until finally, in 1968, a corruption case involving eight plainclothesmen surfaced, and the district attorney wanted Serpico to testify. As brave as Frank was, he took a few moments to think about whether it was worth getting up there and doing it. He had been receiving subtle yet clear threats to his life by other cops. He was a marked man, and he didn’t know whether to push the limits even more by testifying.
He ignored the threats, testified, and confirmed that the cops were indeed corrupt. His testimony basically ended their careers. Two of them went to prison, and the rest were forced to resign. But this didn’t satisfy Frank, who knew that the cops who were on trial were low-ranking officers, and it was their superiors who needed to be taken down.
Ostracized and alone, Frank received no “hurray” from anyone back at the department. According to his fellow officers, he had broken the code of silence, and for that, he needed to be shunned. Frank feared for his life on a daily basis. And, ironically, not because of the criminals on the streets. But because of the very guys, he shared a floor with.
Wherever Serpico went, his reputation preceded him. In 1969, he was transferred to Manhattan North. The guys over there knew that he had ratted out other cops and made it clear they weren’t interested in befriending him.
Serpico went about his business, making multiple arrests each night, never forgetting the main reason he got into this profession in the first place. And he got better at his job as time went by. To catch the bad guys, Serpico said he would act: “I wasn’t a cop anymore. I was an actor. I would spray my hair and change my beard and use accents and change my clothes.”
As you might expect, no one wanted to be Serpico’s partner in the force. Until inspector Paul Delise, a man brave and honest enough, said he was willing to do it. “I got the impression from the expression on his face that he was carrying a tremendous amount of weight on his shoulders,” Paul admitted, “But he had the most sincere eyes you could imagine.”
Every evening, Paul would wrap up his administrative work while Serpico waited for him outside the office. They would then spend the night making arrests, but not before dodging their own fellow workers. Yes, Serpico and Paul were being watched by other police officers. “The irony of it is that every time we went out, the first thing we had to do was lose our police tail. They would follow us to see if we were going to screw up on any of their operations,” Frank explained.
Fed up and angry, Serpico took his story to none other than – The New York Times. If officials within the justice system weren’t willing to listen, he would make them. Or better put, the newspaper would. Frank knew that their corrupted deeds would make headlines, forcing them to clean up their act once and for all.
Serpico met with crime reporter David Burnham, who sat most of the meeting in complete disbelief. “The story that [Serpico] told me wasn’t a coherent thing. It didn’t make sense and was full of a lot of police jargon,” he confessed. Still, he had a feeling Frank was speaking the truth.
To Serpico’s surprise, The New York Times’ reporter was genuinely interested in his story, a reaction he hadn’t received from any of the other people he had approached. Burnham did some snooping of his own and discovered that the plainclothes squad was turning a blind eye to underground gambling rings.
“They controlled the territories that they operated and charged money for how many customers the gamblers had,” he shared. “The money was distributed in a very regular way to the plainclothesmen, and this had been going on for 100 years.”
Serpico, along with his friend David Durk and inspector Paul Delise sat down with Burnham and another city editor. They discussed corruption, the failure in the police department, and the things that were in dire need of change.
“It was a remarkable meeting,” Burnham stated, “I doubt many city editors have ever sat down with a whole bunch of cops, including high ranking ones, and have them spill their guts about what they have seen.”
With such an explosive story, one that threatened the careers of the cops who came forward, keeping things under wraps was imperative. Burnham assured that all his taped interviews and notes were placed under lock and key.
Finally, on April 25th, 1970, the story broke. The title read: “Graft Paid to Police Here Said to Run Into Millions.” The police scandal had become front-page news, and both good and bad cops suffered from it. The article created an image about the force as a whole, and the public viewed all cops, honest or not, as corrupt.
In the wake of the scandal, the mayor appointed a special task force called The Knapp Commission to investigate the corruption. And Serpico? His decision to come forward brought no reward whatsoever. No gold detective shield. Only another transfer, to narcotics.
No one in the narcotics department was happy to see Serpico walk in. Although he knew he was hated, nothing prepared him for what was yet to come. On February 3rd, 1971, he went on a drug bust with two other cops, and it ended up in absolute disaster. Some even say that the police set him up. In short, it went something like this:
After spotting a suspect make a sale, Serpico knocked on his door and talked to him in Spanish, pretending to be just an ordinary guy looking for drugs. The dealer kept the door chained but cracked it open, and at that very moment, Serpico managed to wedge himself in a bit. The dealer then shot him in the face, sending Serpico into a dizzying spin backward. He lay on the floor, bleeding, his feet still wedged in the doorway.
Where were his companions, you ask? In the hallway. Neither of them called for help.
Shot in the face, Frank Serpico lay bleeding, cradled in the arms of a tenant who had phoned the police right after hearing the gunfire. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, and his mom, Maria, came shortly after to see what had happened to her son.
She broke down the second she stepped into the hospital room. She grabbed his hand, kissed him gently, and sobbed. He leaned towards her and whispered, “I’ll be alright.” Serpico eventually recuperated, but his hearing was damaged for good.
Frank Serpico wasn’t (and still isn’t) someone who feels sorry for himself. “My most negative experience was my most positive,” he concluded. He resigned from the NYPD a year later, but not before he received what he always longed for, the gold detective shield.
Unfortunately, it was a little too late. Because at that point, it felt meaningless.
In a way, the shot to his face was Serpico’s wake-up call. Recalling the event, he said that at the moment of fire, he “heard this voice that came like thunder, telling [him] that [his life] was all a lie.”
Serpico agreed to testify at the Knapp Commission hearings near the end of its sessions in December of 1971, and shortly thereafter, he decided to resign from the NYPD.
He wrote a book about his career, which led to a feature film with Al Pacino in the title role. The film’s director, John Avildsen, had nothing but good things to say about this ex-officer: “He was perfect guy to be a cop. He loved being a cop. He was honest. He was passionate about it. And society wouldn’t let him do it. It’s a tragedy.”
In Frank’s mind, the portrayal in the film was fair and relatively close to reality, but he was tired of all the attention. So, he took his dog Alfie and sailed to Europe. First stop – Italy. Then onto Switzerland. “Wherever he went,” Avildsen explained, “he integrated himself immediately. He befriended everybody. The characters in town and the lovely ladies and the goings-on and the gossip.”
No longer a cop but still a loving, caring member of society, Serpico kept affecting the people he met along the way.
Now in his 80s, Serpico lives a quiet, humble life outside Albany, New York. But he doesn’t shy away from the cameras and still remains vocal about burning social issues. He still does plenty of interviews, speeches and tends to activist campaigns advocating for police reform.
As for the events of 2020, Serpico stated: “The fuel has been pooling for decades—the Floyd thing was the spark that ignited it. What is happening now is also a manifestation of that corruption. Brutality is police corruption.”
Clearly, we’re nowhere near the end of the crookedness within our so-called “just” systems. And, sorry if I sound a bit fatalistic, but I don’t think we ever will be. Still, that doesn’t mean we need to give up trying. One less corrupted department means one more victory for justice.