Police History: Frank Serpico and the preservation of honor

After a best-selling novel on his life was made into the movie ‘Serpico,’ he became famous, but Frank Serpico was more concerned with courage

Frank Serpico was born April 14, 1936 to two hard-working and highly principled Italian immigrants proudly making their way in the new world. In his youth, Frank loved detective stories and dreamed of someday becoming one of New York’s Finest.

At age 18, Frank enlisted in the Army and served two years in Korea. In 1959, he donned the iconic blue tunic of the New York City Police Department.

Frank excelled as a patrol officer. He was living his dream.

Plainclothes Pressure
Frank’s incredible work ethic got him promoted to plainclothes. Frank showed the same enthusiasm toward plainclothes enforcement as patrol, making many arrests. To catch criminals, he blended into the city by using disguises and speaking multiple languages. He arrested suspects while dressed as a bum, a butcher, a rabbi, and even a sheik.

Frank was only in plainclothes a short time before he was introduced to “The Pad,” which amounted to arrest insurance. If a gambler made regular payments to the “Bag Man” in the plainclothes unit, business could continue unmolested by the plainclothes detectives.

From the time of his arrival in the plainclothes unit, Frank’s partner concealed that Frank refused to take his share of “the pad” by keeping Frank’s share as well as his own. When other members of his unit inevitably discovered Frank was refusing money, they conspired to convince him to accept his share of the bribes.

Serpico Goes Public
After Frank was unsuccessfully cajoled, pressured, and threatened into taking money, Frank reported the corruption to his superiors. Instead of appreciating Frank’s dedication to honorable policing, commander after commander treated Frank as if he was the problem.

Frank eventually took his complaint to highest level, but nothing discernable was done.

Meanwhile, the action against toward Frank Serpico escalated.

Eventually Frank concluded he was in imminent danger of death and decided he did not want to die in vain. Frank, Sergeant David Durk, and Lieutenant Paul Delise told their story of corruption to David Burnham of the New York Times. Burnham in turn exposed the institutionalized corruption referred to as “The Pad.”

Frank was transferred to narcotics.

Frank Loses the Career He Loved
On February 3, 1971 Frank knocked on the apartment door of a suspected drug dealer. The dealer initially answered the door, but then slammed it on Frank, who became pinned between the door and the door frame. Frank shouted for his partners to help. None was forthcoming. The dealer shot Frank in the face as Frank fired, hitting the suspect in the hand.

Serpico went down.

Uniformed officers arrived on scene and transported Frank in their patrol car to the hospital, where Frank’s life was saved.

Frank Serpico’s recovery was long and arduous. He was left permanently deaf in his left ear, while bullet fragments would be forever lodged just below his brain.

The Knapp Commission
As a result of Serpico’s revelations, The Knapp Commission was formed to investigate the allegations of widespread corruption.

Serpico, Durk, Delise, and others came forward and testified in front of the commission. The revelations led to sweeping reforms in the NYPD, enabling honest officers to finally be able to operate unmolested by the dishonest few who seep into the ranks.

Frank received his detective’s Gold Shield and the department’s Medal of Honor. Receiving his department’s highest honor was bittersweet. There was never a ceremony for him. He could not stand — in the uniform he so proudly put on in 1959 — to receive that honor before his family, friends, and peers.

He would later say the medal was handed to him “like a pack of cigarettes.”

As a result of his wounds, Frank retired from the career he loved in 1972. A best-selling novel was written about his life. The book was made into the movie “Serpico.” Frank became instantly famous, but was always uncomfortable with his celebrity status. He moved to Switzerland to leave the notoriety and threats behind him. He found love, married and lived the life of a farmer until his wife died of cancer.

Frank eventually returned to the United States and now lives a quiet life in upstate New York.

My Conversation With Frank Serpico
As a police officer — as well as trainer — I was heavily affected by Frank’s story. Throughout my career, when faced with an ethical decision, I would ask myself, “What would Frank do?”

As my own retirement approached in 2006, I sent a letter to Frank and told him how much his story had affected not only all of law enforcement, but me personally.

To my surprise I received a call from Frank. He said he had called to ask if it was all right to give my phone number to a neighbor.

The young man was writing a report on “Frank Serpico the Hero,” and Frank felt uncomfortable talking about himself in that context. He asked, “Could you talk to the kid?”

I responded “Certainly! By the way Frank, while I have you here, could we talk a bit?” I asked.

“Sure, but only if you call me Paco. My friends call me Paco.”

During this unforgettable conversation I told Frank I taught ethics to recruits and asked if he had some words of wisdom that I could pass along to my students as I continue to them tell his story. I expected that Frank’s words would be powerful.

I was not disappointed.

He said, “Police work is an honorable profession — if you do it with honor.”

Frank’s words resounded like a thunderclap on a lazy summer day.

Frank Serpico has done our profession honor by giving us all the gift of honor. I am so humbled that all I can think to say in return is, “Thanks, Paco.”

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