Serpico: Police violence is out of control



In an op-ed for Politico, “The Police Are Still Out of Control: And I should know,” Frank Serpico shares his insights on dealing with bad cops. Serpico, a retired police detective, famously exposed graft and corruption in the New York City Police Department in the 1970s. His disclosures led to the Knapp Commission Report, described below by Adam Walinsky (Village Voice).

Scarcely a page goes by without its small shock, its little jab of horror: a police officer, for $2000, covering up two mobsters’ connection with a murder; another, for $5000, revealing to organized crime the identity of a narcotics informant, who was then taken upstate and murdered; organized crime paying an elite squad of Harlem policemen three times what the Department paid them; policemen, including high officers, financing heroin transactions, selling official information, and protecting narcotics dealers, all of which were described by the Commission as “typical” activities; as well as “numerous” instances of police introducing customers to pushers, kidnapping critical witnesses to keep them from testifying against pushers, providing armed protection (“riding shotgun”) for dealers, or offering to obtain “hit men” to kill potential witnesses.

Bit by brutal bit, the Commission lays a mosaic of corruption that is “an extensive, Department-wide phenomenon, indulged in to some degree by a sizable majority of those on the force and protected by a code of silence on the part of those who remained honest.” —Walinsky

“Today the combination of an excess of deadly force and near-total lack of accountability is more dangerous than ever,” Serpico writes. Police violence is “out of control,” he suggests, “for the same reason that graft once was: a lack of accountability,” and accountability is rare because “police departments are useless at investigating themselves.” He discovered first-hand that internal disclosures were futile, an outcome he attributes to police lobbying power.

[T]he reason I’m speaking out now is that, tragically, too little has really changed since the Knapp Commission, the outside investigative panel formed by then-Mayor John Lindsay after I failed at repeated internal efforts to get the police and district attorney to investigate rampant corruption in the force. Lindsay had acted only because finally, in desperation, I went to the New York Times, which put my story on the front page. Led by Whitman Knapp, a tenacious federal judge, the commission for at least a brief moment in time supplied what has always been needed in policing: outside accountability. As a result many officers were prosecuted and many more lost their jobs. But the commission disbanded in 1972 even though I had hoped (and had so testified) that it would be made permanent. —Serpico

Human Rights Watch notes that reforms instituted after the Knapp Commission report by Police Commissioner Patrick Murphy “faded after his departure in 1973.” By the early 1990s, scandals were again rocking the NYPD, ultimately resulting in the creation of another commission.

Serpico recommends creating permanent, independent review boards, requiring community involvement, improving the selection process, providing “examples-based” training, enforcing laws equally, and supporting honest cops. He knows more than anyone should about the lack of support for honest cops. Four decades after he testified about corruption, he still receives hate mail from other cops. He attributes the hostility to an “us against them” attitude…their version of the Mafia’s omerta.”

He prefers to the term “lamp lighter” (like Paul Revere) to “whistleblower,” and it fits him: He has devoted his life to lighting the way for others.

Every time I speak out on topics of police corruption and brutality, there are inevitably critics who say that I am out of touch and that I am old enough to be the grandfather of many of the cops who are currently on the force. But I’ve kept up the struggle, working with lamp lighters to provide them with encouragement and guidance; serving as an expert witness to describe the tactics that police bureaucracies use to wear them down psychologically; testifying in support of independent boards; developing educational guidance to young minority citizens on how to respond to police officers; working with the American Civil Liberties Union to expose the abuses of stun-gun technology in prisons; and lecturing in more high schools, colleges and reform schools than I can remember.—Serpico

Serpico’s observations are consistent with my own brief experience working for a police department. His recommendations are reasonable, but I would add one more–election reform—to ensure success of the other recommendations by addressing the root cause of past failures.

To read the op-ed in its entirety (and you should), visit


Photo credit: “Rally against police brutality” by Fibonacci Blue at (CC)


More resources:

New York’s foulest” by Philip Messing

Serpico” (video)

Serpico” (book) by Peter Maas.

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