Frank Serpico, the former New York City police officer immortalized on-screen in 1973 by actor Al Pacino, penned a piece for Politico this month noting that little has improved with regard to law enforcement corruption since his own crooked colleagues allowed him to be shot in the face by a drug dealer decades ago.
Serpico rose to national attention when, as an NYPD narcotics officer in 1971, he became trapped in a doorway was shot as fellow officers stood by refusing to help because he’d uncovered police corruption.
Even now, I do not know for certain why I was left trapped in that door by my fellow police officers. But the Narcotics division was rotten to the core, with many guys taking money from the very drug dealers they were supposed to bust. I had refused to take bribes and had testified against my fellow officers. Police make up a peculiar subculture in society. More often than not they have their own moral code of behavior, an “us against them” attitude, enforced by a Blue Wall of Silence. It’s their version of the Mafia’s omerta. Speak out, and you’re no longer “one of us.” You’re one of “them.” And as James Fyfe, a nationally recognized expert on the use of force, wrote in his 1993 book about this issue, Above The Law, officers who break the code sometimes won’t be helped in emergency situations, as I wasn’t.
According to Serpico, he still receives hate mail from active and retired police officers for daring to blow the whistle on police corruption more than 40 years ago.
After multiple attempts to force internal investigations into the police corruption at the time, Serpico eventually took his story to The New York Times. That led to the formation of the Knapp Commission, the outside investigative panel formed by then-Mayor John Lindsay to investigate the corruption.
In his Politico column, Serpico concludes that police corruption and abuse of whistle-blowers is alive and well today.
Today the combination of an excess of deadly force and near-total lack of accountability is more dangerous than ever: Most cops today can pull out their weapons and fire without fear that anything will happen to them, even if they shoot someone wrongfully. All a police officer has to say is that he believes his life was in danger, and he’s typically absolved. What do you think that does to their psychology as they patrol the streets—this sense of invulnerability? The famous old saying still applies: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. (And we still don’t know how many of these incidents occur each year; even though Congress enacted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act 20 years ago, requiring the Justice Department to produce an annual report on “the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers,” the reports were never issued.)
According to Serpico, a combination of poor training and screening of officers, over-arming, and a lack of internal and community policing of law enforcement agencies have created an environment where officer interactions with the public can quickly turn wrongfully deadly.
In his piece, the former police officer also advises that waiting for improvements to be offered by politicians is a fruitless endeavor.
As for Barack Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, they’re giving speeches now, after Ferguson. But it’s 20 years too late. It’s the same old problem of political power talking, and it doesn’t matter that both the president and his attorney general are African-American. Corruption is color blind. Money and power corrupt, and they are color blind too.
Read Serpico’s full article, complete with policy recommendations, at Politico.