The 1973 movie, “Serpico,” documents the real life experiences of former New York City police officer Frank Serpico. Serpico was hailed as a hero in some quarters for his exposure of police corruption in New York, but he wound up a marked man – by other police officers.
Serpico describes the climactic moment of the movie in a new piece for Politico. He tells how he was shot in the face by a drug dealer while other officers did nothing to help. Those officers, he says, didn’t even call for an ambulance as Serpico lay on the floor in a growing pool of his own blood. Later, as he lay in a hospital bed, one of the other officers brought Serpico his watch.
“’What the hell am I going to do with a watch?’ Serpico asked. ‘What I needed was a backup. Where were you?’”
According to Serpico, the officer replied, “F*** you,” and left.
Frank Serpico, now 78, says he still doesn’t know what happened that day. He says he doesn’t know why the other officers left him trapped, his arm wedged in a door, facing an armed drug dealer, but in his scathing commentary, he says the police are out of control.
Serpico has long maintained that police often operate under what he calls a “Blue Wall of Silence.” He says that many cops have an “us against them” mentality, and if you speak out about police abuses or corruption, you are no longer part of the “us,” but you have become “one of them.” He says that even today, over 40 years since the events that were presented in the movie that bears his name, he gets hate mail from police officers.
Why has Frank Serpico chosen to re-enter the spotlight? It’s because he says that too little has changed with police over the years since he left the NYC police force. He admits that some things have improved, particularly in the area of police “shaking down” drug dealers or other criminals for money, but it is his opinion that police violence is worse now, due to a lack of accountability. Serpico says:
“Today the combination of an excess of deadly force and near-total lack of accountability is more dangerous than ever: Most cops today can pull out their weapons and fire without fear that anything will happen to them, even if they shoot someone wrongfully. All a police officer has to say is that he believes his life was in danger, and he’s typically absolved.”
Serpico’s claims are backed up by evidence.
Frank Serpico is right. Jim Fisher, a former FBI agent and investigator, took a look at police involved shootings in the year 2011. There is no government organization that keeps data on police shootings, so Fisher had to collect it himself. Why doesn’t the government collect such information? Fisher thinks the answer is that the government doesn’t want us to know.
Fisher backs Serpico’s claim about officers who shoot civilians.
“Almost all police involved shootings, while investigated by special units, prosecutor’s offices, or an outside police agency, were investigated by governmental law enforcement personnel. It is perhaps not surprising that more than 95 percent of all police-involved shootings were ruled administratively and legally justified. A handful of cases led to wrongful death lawsuits. Even fewer will result in the criminal prosecution of officers.”
Serpico goes on to say that the distance between the police and the communities they serve has gotten wider. This is evident in places like Ferguson, Missouri, where an almost all white police force watches over a town that is mostly black. But Serpico thinks the issue has more to do with the arms given to police, rather than a color line.
“[W]hen you are dealing every day with civilians walking the streets, and you bring in armored vehicles and automatic weapons, it’s all out of proportion. It makes you feel like you’re dealing with some kind of subversive enemy. The automatic weapons and bulletproof vest may protect the officer, but they also insulate him from the very society he’s sworn to protect.”
There have been politicians over the years who have expressed a willingness to fix problems with the police, but Serpico says that little has come out of their good intentions, due to their need for backing from police unions, and their need for the votes of police officers. So what does he suggest to fix the problems with police? He offers six ideas.
- Strengthen the selection process and psychological screening process for police recruits.
- Provide ongoing, examples-based training and simulations.
- Require community involvement from police officers.
- Enforce the laws against everyone, including police officers.
- Support the good guys.
- Last but not least, police cannot police themselves.
The final item on that list is perhaps the most important. Frank Serpico learned from his experience, trying to work within the system to end corruption in the NYC police force, that no organization can investigate itself. Yet, that is exactly what still happens on a regular basis when there is an incident involving police.
Frank Serpico still carries bullet fragments in his head from that day long ago. When someone in his position says the police are out of control, it’s time for everyone to listen.[Photo credit nytimes.com]