Was Detective Frank Serpico an honest Police Officer?

Frank Serpico is the modern day hero who blew his whistle when he had to. He walked into the public limelight when he exposed deep rooted corruption within the New York Police Department in the 1970's. His bravery and honesty have been immortalized in the 1973 movie “Serpico” where Frank Serpico is portrayed by Al Pacino. In this film, Serpico is portrayed as an ordinary guy trying to do his job. He has the habit of making conscientious decisions. Serpico is a good cop trapped in a bad situation.

Surrounded by corruption and bribery at NYPD, Serpico’s conscientiousness causes him to be ostracized and cast as a deviant (Reese, 2002). As to how Serpico survived in such a hostile environment, Glazer and Glazer (1989) explain: “Serpico was able to move ahead because he was already disenchanted and estranged. Unlike other police, he had never "shopped" or taken any small bribes, which could have demoralized him. He never experienced the erosion of his personal values. He never became "bent. " Equally important, he remained psychologically and socially distant from his peers.

His remained loyal to his early perception of what a police officer should be and loyal to the formal regulations of his department” (p. 55). (Reese, 2002) Frank Serpico was born in Brooklyn, New York. He served for two years in the U. S. Army in Korea at the age of eighteen. After military service, he worked part time as he did his college studies. He joined the New York City Police Department at the age of twenty-three. During the time of his entry into the NYPD in 1960, payoffs, bribes and kickbacks were widespread and common within the department.

But he stood by his principles of honesty and refused to take money. This angered his colleagues who began to view him as a threat. One day, he blew the whistle on them and became their enemy. Through the New York Times, Frank Serpico revealed instances of police misconduct. This caused a huge uproar within police quarters as the then-Mayor John Lindsay created an independent committee, the Knapp Commission, to investigate police corruption in the NYPD. Serpico was under huge pressure as he faced death threats (Democracy Now, 2000).

On June 18th of that year, Serpico testified against a former partner. This placed him as an enemy in the eyes of his colleagues and he was ostracized by his peers and even labeled a ‘rat’. The enmity he had earned was so much that he almost lost his life because of it. When he was shot point blank in the face during a drug operations case in 1971, his colleagues did not call for help. There are many who believe that Serpico might have been “set up” to be shot. He testified in 1971 at hearings held by the Knapp Commission to investigate charges of corruption in the NYPD (CNN, 1997).

He resigned from the NYPD on June 15, 1972, and was awarded a Medal of Honor for his bravery, action and honesty (Democracy Now, 2000). He then worked on his book ‘Serpico’. The movie ‘Serpico’ starring Al Pacino was based on the book. Serpico lived for a while in Europe until 1980. But thereafter he has involved himself in painting and shifts between a country cabin and a Brooklyn apartment. He identifies himself as "Citizen Serpico" (CNN, 1997). Serpico warns: “We must as a society change our ways, he says, or risk losing what we take for granted — our liberty and our security”.

He feels that a ‘policeman’s first obligation is to be responsible to the needs of the community he serves’. But Serpico points out that the system does not permit an honest police officer to remain honest without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers. He notes tragically: “We create an atmosphere in which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer, and not the other way around. ” (Serpico, 2007) Serpico, even after his retirement, continues to fight for causes of justice and honesty.

He has voiced his anguish over the attempted cover-up following the Amadou Diallo shooting in 1999. Thus it is an undeniable fact that Frank Serpico is one of the honest police officers on American soil.


  • CNN (1997). Serpico resurrects his decades-old criticism of NYPD. http://www. cnn. com/US/9709/23/serpico. brutality/ Reese, Renford (2002).
  • Whistle-blowing into a tangled web: The case of Serpico, L. A. Confidential and the LAPD’s Rampart Division. Journal of criminal Justice and Popular Culture. 2002.
  • Volume 9, Issue 2: 105-111.http://www. albany. edu/scj/jcjpc/vol9is2/reese. pdf Glazer, Myron P. and Glazer, Penina M. (1989).
  • The Whistle-blowers: Exposing corruption in Government and Industry. New York: Basic Books. Democracy Now (2000). Frank Serpico on Police Corruption.
  • February 18, 2000. http://www. democracynow. org/article. pl? sid=03/04/07/0226233 Frank Serpico (2007).
  • Americans who tell the truth: Frank Serpico. http://www. americanswhotellthetruth. org/pgs/portraits/Frank_Serpico. html Serpico. Movie directed by Sidney Lumet. Actor: Al Pacino. 1973