Frank Serpico

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Francesco Vincent Serpico
Born (1936-04-14) April 14, 1936 (age 78)
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Other names "Paco", "Serpico"
Awards NYPD Medal of Honor breast bar.svg – NYPD Medal of Honor
Police career
Department New York City Police Department (NYPD)
Badge number 19076[1]
Years of service September 11, 1959 – June 15, 1972
Rank 1960 – Commissioned as a Patrolman
Other work Lecturer on occasion to students at universities and police academies

Francesco Vincent Serpico (born April 14, 1936) is a retired American New York City Police Department (NYPD) officer who is famous for blowing the whistle on police corruption in the late 1960s and early 1970s, an act that compelled Mayor John V. Lindsay to appoint the landmark Knapp Commission to investigate the NYPD.[2] Most of Serpico's fame came after the release of the 1973 film Serpico, which starred Al Pacino in the title role, for which Pacino was nominated for an Oscar.

Early life and education[edit]

Serpico was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 14, 1936, the youngest child of Vincenzo and Maria Giovanna Serpico, Italian immigrants from Marigliano, in the province of Naples, Campania. He recounts an experience of his father standing up to police corruption in his shop where Serpico shined shoes.[3]

At the age of 17, he enlisted in the United States Army and was stationed for two years in South Korea as an infantryman. He then worked as a part-time private investigator and as a youth counselor while attending Brooklyn College.[4]



In September 1959, Serpico joined the New York City Police Department (NYPD) as a probationary patrolman. He became a full patrolman on March 5, 1960. He was assigned to the 81st precinct, then worked for the Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI) for two years.[5] He was finally assigned to work plainclothes, where he uncovered widespread corruption.[4]

Serpico was a plainclothes police officer working in Brooklyn and the Bronx to expose vice racketeering. In 1967 he reported credible evidence of widespread systematic police corruption. Nothing happened,[6] until he met another police officer, David Durk, who helped him. Serpico believed his partners knew about secret meetings with police investigators. Finally, Serpico contributed to an April 25, 1970, New York Times front-page story on widespread corruption in the NYPD.[6] Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed a five-member panel to investigate charges of police corruption. The panel became the Knapp Commission, named after its chairman, Whitman Knapp.

Shooting and public interest[edit]

Serpico was shot during a drug arrest attempt on February 3, 1971, at 778 Driggs Avenue, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Four officers from Brooklyn North received a tip that a drug deal was about to take place.

Two policemen, Gary Roteman and Arthur Cesare, stayed outside, while the third, Paul Halley, stood in front of the apartment building. Serpico climbed up the fire escape, entered by the fire escape door, went downstairs, listened for the password, then followed two suspects outside.[7]

The police arrested the young suspects, and found one had two bags of heroin. Halley stayed with the suspects, and Roteman told Serpico (who spoke Spanish), to make a fake purchase attempt to get the drug dealers to open the door. The police went to the third-floor landing. Serpico knocked on the door, keeping his hand on his revolver. The door opened a few inches, just far enough to wedge his body in. Serpico called for help, but his fellow officers ignored him.[7]

Serpico was then shot in the face with a .22 LR pistol. The bullet struck just below the eye and lodged at the top of his jaw. He fired back,[8] fell to the floor, and began to bleed profusely. His police colleagues refused to make a "10-13", a dispatch to police headquarters indicating that an officer had been shot.[7] An elderly man who lived in the next apartment called the emergency services and reported that a man had been shot. The stranger stayed with Serpico.[7] A police car arrived. Unaware that Serpico was one of them, the officers took him to Greenpoint Hospital.

The bullet had severed an auditory nerve, leaving him deaf in one ear, and he has suffered from chronic pain from bullet fragments lodged in his brain. He was visited the day after the shooting by Mayor John V. Lindsay and Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy, and the police department harassed him with hourly bed checks. He survived and testified before the Knapp Commission.

The circumstances surrounding Serpico's shooting quickly came into question. Serpico, who was armed during the drug raid, had been shot only 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, raising the question whether Serpico had actually been brought to the apartment by his colleagues to be murdered. There was no formal investigation.[8]

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 lieutenant who was accused of taking bribes from gamblers.

Testimony in front of the Knapp Commission[edit]

In October, and again in December 1971, Serpico testified before the Knapp Commission:[7]

Frank Serpico was the first police officer in the history of the New York City Police Department to step forward to report and subsequently testify openly about widespread, systemic corruption payoffs amounting to millions of dollars.[9]

Retirement and activism[edit]

Frank Serpico retired on June 15, 1972, one month after receiving the New York City Police Department's highest honor, the Medal of Honor. There was no ceremony; according to Serpico, it was simply handed to him over the desk "like a pack of cigarettes".[10] He went to Switzerland to recuperate and spent almost a decade living there and on a farm in the Netherlands, as well as traveling and studying. When it was decided to make the movie about his life called Serpico, Al Pacino invited Serpico to stay with him at a house that Pacino had rented in Montauk, NY. When Pacino asked why he had stepped forward, 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?"[11] Serpico credited his grandfather, who was stabbed and robbed, and his uncle, who was a respected policeman in Italy, with his sense of justice.[12]

Serpico still speaks out against police corruption, brutality, the weakening of civil liberties, and corrupt practices in law enforcement, such as the alleged cover-ups following Abner Louima's torture in 1997 and Amadou Diallo's shooting in 1999.[13] 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", which refers to alerting the public to danger,[3] just as Paul Revere was responsible for having lamps lit in the Old North Church to warn the public in Charlestown, Massachusetts, of the British Regulars' movements during the American Revolutionary War.

A policeman’s first obligation is to be responsible to the needs of the community he serves…The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which an honest police officer can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers. We create an atmosphere in which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer, and not the other way around.
—Frank Serpico [14]

In an October 2014 interview published by Politico entitled "The Police Are Still Out of Control... I Should Know", Serpico addresses contemporary issues of police violence.[15]

Among police officers, his actions are still controversial,[16] but Eugene O'Donnell, professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, states that "he becomes more of a heroic figure with every passing year."[17]

Effect on the NYPD[edit]

As a result of Serpico’s efforts, the NYPD was drastically changed. Michael Armstrong, who was counsel to the Knapp Commission and went on to become chairman of the city’s Commission to Combat Police Corruption, observed in 2012 “the attitude throughout the department seems fundamentally hostile to the kind of systemized graft that had been a way of life almost 40 years ago.”[18]

Personal life[edit]

Serpico has been married four times. In 1957, he married Mary Ann Wheeler, but divorced her in 1962. In 1963, he married Leslie Lane, a fellow college student, and they divorced in 1965. In 1966, he married Laurie Young, but they divorced in 1969. On June 15, 1972, Serpico left both the NYPD and U.S. to move to Europe. In 1973, he married a woman named Marianne from the Netherlands, who was his final wife; she died from cancer in 1980. He decided to return to the United States afterward.[7] His only child, son Alexander Serpico, was born March 15, 1980.[10]

On June 27, 2013, the USA Section of ANPS (National Association of Italian State Police) assigned him the "Saint Michael Archangel Prize", an official award by the Italian State Police with the Sponsorship of the Italian Ministry of Interior. "Francesco" Serpico is now an Italian citizen: during the same ceremony, he received his first Italian passport after extended research by the president of ANPS USA, Chief Inspector Cirelli, who established the Jus sanguinis, allowing him to gain Italian citizenship.[19]

In popular culture[edit]

  • 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 Serpico: The Deadly Game (also known as "The Deadly Game"), broadcast on NBC. This led to a short-lived Serpico TV series the following fall on the same network.

On a recent MSNBC "The Reid Report," host Joy-Ann Reid related the case of former Baltimore police detective Joseph Crystal to that of Frank Serpico because of Crystal's efforts to report police abuse[20] of a suspect.[21]


  • Maas, Peter; Serpico, Frank (2005), Serpico: The Classic Story of the Cop Who Couldn't Be Bought, New York: Perennial, ISBN 978-0-06-073818-1 .

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Maas, Peter (1973), Serpico, The cop who defied the system, New York: The Viking Press, pp. 49, 268 .
  2. ^ Haberman, Clyde (September 24, 1997). "Serpico Steps Out of the Shadows to Testify". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-10-25. 
  3. ^ a b Cooper 2013.
  4. ^ a b "Frank Serpico" (biography). Frank Serpico. 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-24. 
  5. ^ "Cops have their say". Inter gate. 2007. Archived from the original on August 22, 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-25. 
  6. ^ a b "Serpico Testifies". New York. 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-25. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f Phalen, Kathleen F (January–February 2001). "Frank Serpico: The fate that gnaws at him". Gadfly. Retrieved 2007-10-25. 
  8. ^ a b Serpico, Frank (October 23, 2014). "The Police Are Still Out of Control". Politico. 
  9. ^ Burnham, David (April 25, 1970). "Graft Paid to Police Here Said to Run Into Millions". The New York Times. 
  10. ^ a b Kilgannon, Corey (2010-01-22). "Serpico on Serpico". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-10-14. 
  11. ^ Grobel, Lawrence (2008). Al Pacino. Simon & Schuster. p. 32. ISBN 9781416955566. 
  12. ^ Pehme, Morgan (2012-09-05). "Doing the Right Thing". City & State. Retrieved 2013-10-14. 
  13. ^ Tyre, Peg (September 23, 1997). "Serpico resurrects his decades‐old criticism of NYPD". CNN. Retrieved 2007-10-25. 
  14. ^ Robert Shetterly's Americans Who Tell The Truth, Models of Courageous Citizenship, AWTT, December 30, 2003.
  15. ^ Serpico, Frank (2014-10-23). "The Police Are Still Out of Control". Politico. Retrieved 2014-12-08. 
  16. ^ Shaer, Matthew (2013-09-27). "134 Minutes with Frank Serpico". New York. Retrieved 2013-10-14. 
  17. ^ Iverac, Mirela (2011-10-03). "Decades After Breaking the Blue Wall of Silence, Ex-Cop Frank Serpico Enjoys the Quiet Life". WNYC. Retrieved 2013-10-14. 
  18. ^ ROBERTS, SAM. "Rooting Out Police Corruption". New York Times. Retrieved 27 January 2014. 
  19. ^ "Serpico diventato italiano; cittadinanza allex decttive della polizia di New York" [Serpico became Italian: citizenship to the New York police detective], America Oggi (in Italian) 
  20. ^ Fenton, Justin (23 Dec 2014). "Whistle-blower officer files lawsuit against Batts, BPD". The Baltimore Sun. 
  21. ^ Redi, Joy (5 Jan 2015). "Fmr. Baltimore cop speaks on intimidation" (The Reid Report). NBC. MSNBC. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Johnson, Roberta Ann. "Whistleblowing and the Police." Rutgers Journal of Law and Urban Policy 3 (2006) pp: 74+. online
  • Maas, Peter. Serpico (1973), Full-length biography Excerpts

Newspaper accounts[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Serpico, Frank, Blog, Google .
  • ———, Whistleblowers (audio documentary and interview), IE: RTÉ .
  • ——— (July 25, 2003), "Protecting Our Civil Liberties – the Core of Democracy", Civil Liberties Conference (MP3) (keynote address), Trap rock peace .
  • ——— (July 26, 2003), "Answers questions", Civil Liberties Conference (MP3 audio), Trap rock peace .