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Happy Birthday, Frank Serpico, NYPD Whistle-Blower

April 14, 2010
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Former New York City police officer Frank Serpico is the archetype of the “honest cop.” In 1971, he testified about the rampant corruption in the NYPD to the Knapp Commission. Regarded as a hero by some and a “rat” by others, Frank Serpico became a living example of the sacrifices made by those who hold to the ideals of justice and truth.

Frank Serpico’s Early Days

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Frank Serpico was born on April 14, 1936, in Brooklyn, New York, to immigrants from the Italian province of Naples. When Serpico turned 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served for two years in Korea. Upon his return, he enrolled as a student in Brooklyn College and worked as a youth counselor and a part-time private investigator.

Serpico’s Notable Accomplishments

At age 23, Serpico joined the New York City Police Department, where he worked as a police officer for 12 years. During his time with the NYPD, Frank struggled to avoid the extensive web of bribery and corruption that pervaded the department. For 10 years, Frank filed numerous complaints about the behavior of his colleagues, but the majority of his efforts went unheeded, until he spoke to The New York Times about the problem.

The New York Times listened to Serpico, publishing a series of exposes about police corruption that led Mayor John Lindsay to appoint a commission to examine the allegations. Frank Serpico testified before the Knapp Commission in October 1971, becoming the first police officer in the United States to voluntarily give evidence against a fellow policeman. As he had foreseen, his testimony not only earned him national headlines, but also made him an enemy—a “rat”—in the eyes of his colleagues.

Not content with expressing their passive dislike, Frank Serpico’s fellow officers chose to make an example of him. During a drug raid in Brooklyn that same year, Serpico was shot in the face when his backup team failed to come to his assistance. He survived, but lost all hearing in his left ear.

The indifference of the police force during this incident was intended to punish the whistle-blower. Serpico, however, appears not to have regretted his decision to testify. Years later, he proudly declared: “I locked up criminals who wore badges. If that makes me a rat, so be it, but you have to wonder about the values of police chiefs who think cops are above the law."

The Rest of the Story

It was clear to Serpico that remaining on the force was untenable; he resigned from the NYPD on June 15, 1972. Before departing, he was awarded a Medal of Honor for his bravery. Serpico moved to Europe, where he married. He returned to the United States in the 1980s and settled in upstate New York.

Peter Maas adapted Serpico’s story into a bestselling book; the 1973 blockbuster film version starred Al Pacino in the title role. The character of Frank Serpico, the courageous whistle-blower, earned the 40th heroic spot in the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest heroes and villains in film.

On June 7, 2005, Frank Serpico was invited as an honored guest to the opening of the exhibit titled “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” a collaborative project of Community Works, The Harlem Arts Alliance, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Columbia University. The exhibit—featuring Frank Serpico’s portrait along with those of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and Malcolm X, among others—was a tribute to the many distinguished and outspoken Americans who strove to uphold the ideals of truth and justice even in the face of adversity.
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