Professionalism/Frank Serpico and NYPD

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Francesco Vincent Serpico (born April 14, 1936) is a retired American New York City Police Department (NYPD) police who is most famous for testifying against police corruption in 1971.[1] The Frank Serpico/NYPD case study provides an alarming account of systemic corruption. This chapter explores the details surrounding Serpico's NYPD career and his role exposing NYPD police corruption in the 1970 Knapp Commission.

Police Corruption and Culture[edit]

Frank, let's face it, who can trust a cop that won't take money?

— Tom Keough, from the 1973 Serpico film

To begin framing the issue of police corruption, take a look at the quote to the left from the 1973 film Serpico. This is the type of social pressures that "honest" cops would be exposed to on a daily basis. Because of its nature as both an internal affair and the involvement of high-ranking officials, it is very difficult to tie statistics to police corruption. To fully appreciate how widespread the corruption may have been, Serpico stated: "10% of the department is absolutely corrupt. 10% of the department is absolutely honest. The other 80% wishes they were honest."[2]


Police Corruption[edit]

Police corruption is a specific form of police misconduct designed to obtain financial benefits, personal gain, or career advancement for a police officer in exchange for not pursuing, or selectively pursuing, an investigation or arrest. This is the main contributor to what became known as police culture or "cop culture." Police corruption was widespread in the US in the 1960's and 1970's: most notably in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Back in those days, widespread corruption not only existed, but became institutionalized. Police corruption does still exist to some extent today.

The Knapp Commission Report on Police Corruption identified two particular classes of corrupt police officer. Grass-eaters simply accepted payoffs that everyday police work exposed them to. These were the 80% of folks Serpico refereed to as "wishing they were honest." Meat-eaters on the other hand aggressively misused their police powers for personal gain, often going out of their way to find these opportunities. Some parties involved with police corruption include: mobsters or mafia members, gangs, store owners, and the cops themselves. Corrupt acts that officers would partake in include, but are not limited to:

  • Kickbacks
  • Opportunistic Theft
  • Shakedowns
  • Protection of Illegal Activities
  • "Fixing"
  • Direct Criminal Acts
  • Internal Payoffs
  • "Frameup's"

Police Culture[edit]

police officer.

Police units have long been referred to as police families. A family acts as a support system and in most cases has a very positive connotation. However back in the 1960's, 1970's, and even still nowadays, anti-police propaganda exists in many forms, creating a hostile environment between police officers and the public. Officers will often turn inward to shelter themselves from exposure cultivating a very apparent “us versus them" mentality.

This promotes a police brotherhood, gang or fraternity-like hierarchy. While this structure still provides a support system for officers, it may lead to the devaluing of morals associated with a family and the corrupt acts. There is an unwritten rule, the Blue Code of Silence, among police officers to not report other officers’ errors, misconduct, or crimes. If questioned about an incident of misconduct involving another officer, the officer being questioned is expected to claim ignorance.

Social Pressures[edit]

As you can imagine with this culture any type of whistle-blowing, the act of reporting the misconduct of other officers, is condemned. Partaking in whistle-blowing can result in isolation, losing backup, receiving threats, exposure of your own misconduct, or even physical harm. If someone exposes another officer, his career within the organization can be instantly ruined or life endangered. One police officer from New York City said, "If a cop decided to tell on me, his career's ruined....He's going to be labeled as a rat."[3]

New officers may especially feel pressured into the gang-like system because they seek support and security from their peers. One study found most members don’t view criminals as the enemy, instead identify police management, city official, and the media as their enemies.[4] This is an example of Systemic Corruption where the corruption has been embedded into the organization itself. It can be contrasted with individuals who act corruptly within the system.

Frank Serpico[edit]

Corruption and NYPD Career[edit]

Frank Serpico joined the NYPD in 1959. His aspiration of earning a detective’s badge brought him to the Bureau of Criminal Identification and later influenced his decision to work plainclothes. It was when he became a plainclothes officer that he encountered the systemic corruption that would define his career. He would find that the corruption ranged from bribery to working with criminals. Serpico did not take part in the corruption, which placed considerable pressure on him from his fellow cops. He also found that the corruption prevented him from completing his duties as a police officer. Facing the pressure and inability to do his job, he secretly went to top brass with the information. After two and a half years of pleading with executives, including the mayor, he was eventually paired with District Attourney Roberts, who was willing to put officers on trial. After much pleading, Serpico eventually agreed to testify against his fellow officers, put his life in danger. He began to receive threats from other officers. He also realized that the trials would not solve the corruption issue as the real source, the executive officers, were not included in the trials. Frustrated with the investigation and facing threats on his life, including being an incident when returning from vacation, Serpico decided to go public with his information.

The New York Times and the Knapp Commission[edit]

Using a connection, Serpico was put into contact with David Burnham, a reporter for The New York Times. On April 25st, 1970, the Times ran an article detailing Serpico’s information under a front page headline that read: “Graft Paid to Police Here Said to Run into Millions.” This forced Mayor John Lindsay, who had heard of the corruption years before, to act. He formed a five man commission to investigate the allegation of corruption. This commission was later reformed as the Knapp Commission. The commission led to widespread reform and firings within the police department, including the replacement of then commissioner Howard Leary by Patrick Murphy. Serpico would later testify before the commission.

Shooting[edit]

On February 3rd, 1971, Serpico was shot in the face face during a "buy and bust" operation. He was shot while caught in the door of the drug dealer’s apartment. He luckily survived, but he lost hearing in his left ear and had bullet fragments lodged in his brain. People began to question the circumstances of the drug bust. Serpico had two partners who failed to assist him when he became caught. They also failed to call in a "10-13" (officer down), after the shooting. Instead an elderly man in a nearby apartment called an ambulance. Because of the questionable circumstances, many believe that his partners intended Serpico to die that day by either setting up the bust as an execution or intentionally not assisting him. After recovering from his injuries, Serpico finally received his detective shield in May of 1972. He left the force shortly afterward.

Frank Serpico as a Professional[edit]

After analyzing the Frank Serpico case, Serpico’s professionalism remains in question. Can he be labeled a professional even though he only spoke out against corruption after working for many years in the NYPD? To determine this, the four definitions of a professional must be analyzed. These definitions are:

  1. A licensed or credentialed member of a recognized profession: for example a physician, a lawyer, a professor, a clergyman, or a certified P.E. (Professional Engineer).
  2. The opposite of an amateur: an athlete, actor, etc., who is paid for his or her work.
  3. A dutiful and conscientious employee; for example, an employee who dresses appropriately and who is punctual, courteous and productive.
  4.  ?

On paper, Frank Serpico fits definition one as a licensed police officer. However, although he may be a professional given his job title, is he actually a true professional? A look at other definitions can help determine this. Definition two does not apply to Serpico as a police officers. Definition three is a label that someone gives an individual if he or she viewed that individual as a professional. In Frank Serpico’s case, his supervisors and peers did not view him as dutiful or conscientious to the NYPD and would not have labeled him a professional in this definition. A definition four professional remains, but the relationship of Serpico’s actions to his professionalism is still in question.

As a police officer, Frank Serpico had to abide by the police Code of Ethics. Within this code, a police officer has a duty to his profession but more importantly, to the public. Was Serpico serving the public when he looked the other way from corruption during the beginning of his career with the NYPD? This was probably not the case, as corruption still impacted the public directly. It was only when corruption amounted to so much that Serpico could no longer perform his job to the extent he wanted that he acted on the existing corruption.

When he initially went to the NYPD internal affairs division and the mayor’s office to bring up corruption, Serpico took a step in becoming a professional. This trend in becoming a professional increased when he went directly to the New York Times to tell his point of view on corruption. Finally, with actually testifying for the Knapp Commission, Serpico became a true professional. Standing up for what he believed in and putting his name and face in national spotlight even more than just the New York Times article showed that he had become a professional.

Similarities to Other Professionalism Case Studies[edit]

The Frank Serpico case parallels professionalism case studies of both Rodney Rocha and Arthur Andersen. For Rodney Rocha and NASA, it was the company culture that contributed significantly to the Columbia disaster. NASA was a hierarchical organization whose culture did not promote going against the grain. Rocha was not comfortable going around his boss to confront the space shuttle problem much like many NYPD officers did not confront their superiors and just went along with corruption until the Knapp Commission because that was simply company culture.

Arthur Andersen was an organization built on fostering integrity and serving the customer as honestly as possible. However, it evolved into a culture of deceit and corruption by the 1990’s. Arthur Andersen had a hierarchy leadership where the bystander effect played a significant role among lower employees, much like in the NYPD until the 1970’s where new officers wouldn’t, or couldn’t, say anything against their peers or supervisors. Also, the management of Arthur Andersen during the 1990’s had primarily short-term goals to make a profit without considering long-term consequences. Likewise, many officers had short-term, immediate goals in corruption to get money. They were not looking at the long term consequences of corruption’s impacts on not only the department but the city as a whole.


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