“Never run when you are right” Whistleblower of the Week: Frank Serpico

Frank Serpico

Frank Serpico was born on April 14, 1936, but believes his real birth date was February 3, 1971, when a bullet pierced his head and changed his life forever. Betrayal is a theme that runs underneath most stories that Serpico tells. Betrayal, and a deep sense of loss of the dream he had since childhood, that he would become a police officer and make that his career.

Whistleblowers know betrayal, and they know the deep loss of their career. Serpico does not like the term “whistleblower” because he feels it brings a negative connotation. He is much more comfortable with “lamplighter. ” Serpico cringed the first time he heard himself referred to as a whistleblower, and years later, he still does not like the term. It sounds demeaning for such a noble cause. Serpico feels Lamplighter is a term that sheds light on corruption, injustice, ineptitude, and abuse of power. Paul Revere was a lamplighter, and Serpico prefers that term.

But the bottom line is that Serpico did not even know the term whistleblower in 1971, and he was not aware of any avenue to blow the whistle, because there were none. Serpico did not have any other whistleblowers to offer him guidance or provide support. He truly was an island unto himself after he blew the whistle. His story is one of loss, betrayal, and the beginning of a journey to understand what had happened to his dream that he had since childhood.

Vincenzo and Maria Giovanna Serpico were his parents and immigrants from Italy. Vincenzo was a prisoner of war in World War I, and Serpico remembers his stories of picking lice off his clothes to eat. His mother was strong and protective of the family. Two stories Serpico likes to tell are 1) his father demanding payment upfront from a policeman who had stiffed his son earlier getting a shoeshine, and 2) his mother telling off a teacher when her son came home from school with wet pants because the teacher did not allow him to use the bathroom. It was a hardscrabble life for Serpico growing up. His father was a shoemaker, and his mother worked at a fur factory and Fanny Farmers, wrapping suckers in Coldwater Flat, New York City. Serpico’s first brush with death was at age 5 when his appendix burst. His second brush was 1971 when he was shot in the face.

From childhood, Serpico wanted to be a Police Officer. He wanted to protect and serve the public. He shined shoes in his youth and was known as someone who was not afraid of a confrontation. His father had always told him to “Never run when you are right,” and Serpico took that to heart. He also told Serpico that no one could make him do anything he did not want to do.

In 1954, after Serpico graduated from High School, he joined the military and spent two years in South Korea. He came back from Korea and entered Brooklyn College while also working as a private investigator and youth counselor. In September 1959, Serpico became a probationary patrolman for the New York City Police Department (NYPD). During this time, Serpico saw favoritism in the NYPD. As a recruit, he arrested two armed robbers who had robbed multiple cab drivers. With these arrests as a recruit, he expected to receive the Mayor’s trophy. However, he says an “Inspector’s son got it for some flimflam bullshit,” and Serpico realized that the job he aspired to “might not be on the level.”

On March 5, 1960, Serpico became a full patrolman. He worked two years for the Bureau of Criminal Identification, and then became a plainclothes police officer, working in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan. He realized back then that “black lives did not matter,” but he loved his job. Serpico worked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week; he loved the work, and even made arrests while “out on dates.” He carried a five-shot Smith and Wesson snub-nose revolver and did not have a bulletproof vest.

Serpico wanted an honorable profession but found some cops were corrupt, and corruption paved the way to promotion. Serpico did not want to pursue the corrupt way and became aggressive in making arrests, handling several a night. Other officers were jealous and were also bothered by the fact that Serpico would not take payoffs. He witnessed his fellow officers taking payoffs but was adamant he would not participate. At one point, another officer gave him an envelope containing money, which he reported to his superiors.

Serpico was continually receiving pressure from other officers to take payoffs, but he was adamant and insistent he would not participate in the corruption. He was concerned enough to contact another officer who had connections and helped him report the corruption to higher officials. For two years, Serpico provided credible evidence of widespread, systematic police corruption. Other officers were threatening Serpico and once told him that he would end up “face down in the East River.” Serpico stated that corruption was “worse than the mafia because you would expect it from the mafia.” Finally, in 1968 the Bronx District Attorney’s Office prosecuted one case of corruption involving eight plainclothes police officers, and Serpico testified. Serpico broke the code of silence and subsequently was ostracized.

In 1969, Serpico transferred to Manhattan, and his reputation proceeded him. He went undercover and continued to upstage other police officers with his multiple arrests, and honesty. Threats continued, and in 1970, he contributed to the New York Times story on widespread corruption in the NYPD. Serpico was transferred to narcotics and was subjected to additional abuse.

On February 3, 1971, police received a tip that a drug deal was to take place. Serpico and three other officers proceeded to the address and saw a drug exchange. The exchange was enough to take them to the apartment of the drug dealer. One officer was to the right of Serpico, and one officer was to the left. Serpico called out the drug dealer in Spanish, and the door opened but was held by a chain-link lock. Serpico hit the door with his shoulder and broke the chain. His arm and shoulder were forced inside the door but got stuck with the drug dealer on the other side. Stuck in the door, Serpico turned in desperation to one of the officers, and said, “What are you the fuck waiting for, give me a hand.” When he turned back, the drug dealer opened fire, and the bullet entered Serpico’s cheek ending in his brain. Serpico returned fire, and fell, dropping his gun, which the drug dealer picked up, and headed out a window.

Serpico found himself lying in the hallway, bleeding to death. Both officers had disappeared. An elderly man came out of his apartment and called the police. One thing Serpico does not reveal is that the drug dealer had an automatic, and it jammed. Serpico felt he would have been “finished” if the gun had not jammed. The three policemen that had originally been with Serpico were gone.

After Serpico was shot, his thought was, “Is this it ?” and saw his life rewind. He heard a voice, clear as a bell saying, “it is all a lie.” There were voices calling Serpico’s name, but he refused to follow them, and he kept repeating to himself, “I’m going to live, I’m going to live.” After being transported to the hospital, Serpico advised that two other attempts were made on his life. When asked what “It is all a lie” meant, Serpico responded that “Society is a lie, politicians lie, the cops are liars, and 99.9 percent of the world are not as nice as they pretend to be.” Serpico went out on medical leave and received his gold Detective shield in 1971.

He resigned in 1972, having seen the two officers who left him bleeding in the hallway getting medals for their service that day. Serpico received the Medal of Honor from NYPD, but never got the certificate that accompanied the award. The award was handed to him like a “pack of cards.”

Directly due to Serpico’s whistleblowing, a panel was convened called the Knapp Commission, which resulted in an overhaul of NYPD, changing the organization forever.

Serpico was the first police officer in the history of NYPD to step forward and testify about the widespread corruption and payoffs amounting to millions of dollars. Eugene O’Donnell, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, NYC, stated that “Serpico becomes more of a heroic figure with every passing year.”

When asked what advice Serpico would give other whistleblowers, he responded that they should “Protect their ass, watch their back, and make their own decisions. It is your life.” Serpico stated that he has no regrets, as he feels he has had the greatest experiences, has met all kinds of people, and studied all kinds of religions. The only problem he has found is with the word “God.” Serpico feels that “God’s name has been used, confused and abused by religion, and people have used God to hide their evil deeds.” Serpico believes that everyone has the force of the universe within them.

Whistleblowers, Serpico advised, are the pillars of society. They are committing a noble act. It was not an easy decision for Serpico to become a whistleblower. NYPD was his family, but he knew that it was just the right thing to do to blow the whistle. Serpico had to be true to himself. He did not care what other people thought. He could not betray his principles. He had to be true to himself.

After retiring from the NYPD, Serpico traveled overseas. He spent thirteen to fourteen years abroad, studying languages and religion. Serpico could not outrun his dreams and continued to dream he was ‘“in a critical situation, called the cops, but the bad guys always showed up.” Serpico did not realize he was suffering from PTSD but did know he had Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Serpico stated that he has a “filled” life and possesses everything that he needs. He feels he “has no need for people, and people have to find their own peace of mind.”

Serpico feels that “Serpico” is not a real person, that it has become “like a legend.” He lives in upstate New York, where he has a cabin in the woods. He has had hip replacements and is in good condition, with a lady friend in his life. He meditates, lives with a dog, and admits to “commitment phobia.” He is free to walk barefoot in nature, and naked if he wants. The only thing Serpico deeply regrets is the loss of his childhood vision, that of being a Police Officer.

Currently, Serpico does community theatre, ballroom dancing woodworking, and has speaking engagements. He does not have much confidence in politics and believes there are two kinds of people, 1) those who believe in themselves and have to lie, and 2) those who believe in themselves and tell the truth. Serpico admits that he is “kind of a perfectionist,” and has a moral code. He is living on a disability pension and has a reserve fund from his book and movie. Serpico is dyslexic and extremely smart, being fluent in six languages.

He cannot believe the wanton, reckless behavior of police officers today. Police officers should protect the people they serve. Today’s mantra for a police officer is to shoot first and act like they are at war. The corruption problem has continued in the police culture, and Serpico believes the hypocrisy and lies have never stopped.

Serpico said, “The fight for justice against corruption is never easy. It never has been and never will be. It exacts a toll on ourself, our families, our friends, and especially our children.

“In the end, I believe, as in my case, the price we pay is well worth holding on to our dignity.”

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