Then and Now

Frank Serpico, NYPD Retired 1979

Before Al Pacino portrayed Frank Serpico in the movies, there was a real Frank Serpico. He was a New York City Police officer who took on the culture of corruption that then existed. He won and he lost. Nobody comes out of a battle like that unscathed.

A Welch newspaper did a retrospective, on Frank Serpico. Where are they now? Apparently Serpico ended up in Wales for a time, after he retired from NYPD.

Serpico, or his story was prominent in the 1970’s. You might have read the book :

Then again, there was the movie. According to the hype, it is the story of an honest cop who took on the New York City Police Department. He exposed corruption and started a systematic overhaul of the department. He was set up by dishonest officers and shot while in the line of duty. Sounds good.

This isn’t a shot at Frank Serpico. I have nothing but respect for him. On the other hand it is a dig at those who read, write, or view the movie and feel like what is presented sums events up very nicely. Bullshit.

I read Serpico three times at three different periods of my life. The first time was in high school or shortly after. I took it to be a heroic tale. A solitary figure fighting for what was right against tremendous odds and never flinching. It was still possible to slay dragons in the 1970’s. Sign me up.

The next time I read Serpico I did it through the eyes of a police officer. I had been on the street for three or four years. I was a crusty veteran. Serpico was fighting the good fight, but in a half assed way. He could have done more. Stop whining to the bosses and get the job done.

The third time was shortly after I tried and failed to get the police chief indicted for corruption. A couple of patrol officers were forced to resign over drug use. But I could see the handwriting on the wall. The Chief demanded that another sergeant and I take a polygraph. This, to prove we didn’t plant marijuana, found in another officer’s residence. The problem wasn’t that half the department was compromised. The problem was two loud mouthed Sergeants who pointed that fact out.

Another truth was revealed. Frank Serpico had not uncovered secret corruption in NYPD. The police administration was fully aware of the corruption. The problem presented by Serpico wasn’t how to root out corruption. The problem for the administration was how to maintain the status quo, while doing so. Serpico’s ultimate sin wasn’t attacking corruption it was making the bosses do their job. Serpico knew he was fighting a zero sum game.

Frank Serpico wasn’t naive. He knew he was stirring up a hornet’s nest, He just wanted to be left alone to do his job. Crooked cops pushed. He did what any cop would do, he pushed back.

A problem arises in describing the situation Frank Serpico and others have found themselves. Any attempt at describing is limited by language on the part of the speaker, and imagination on the part of the listener. During the Civil War veterans of battles didn’t even bother describing what they saw. A laconic, “I seen the elephant!” told it all to the listener.

Was Frank Serpico heroic or was he just a stubborn SOB? Yup.

Frank Serpico, now

Serpico, In His 80’s, Got the Last Laugh

Sun Tzu has the last word.