Line of duty legend who took on the MOB: Can’t wait for Sunday’s finale? Then read the edge-of-the-sofa story of the New York cop who fought the wholesale corruption of his force — and paid a bloody price for bravery
The ‘line of duty’ almost cost Frank Serpico his life. In February 1971 he and three other plain-clothes police colleagues went to an address in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after being tipped off that a drug dealer was selling heroin there.
As the only Spanish speaker, Serpico was assigned the hazardous task of pretending to be a junkie to persuade the Latino dealer and his cronies to let them in.
As two other officers waited behind him, he knocked and said he’d come to buy. The door opened a few inches, the chain still on, and Serpico wedged himself into the gap, pushing as he shouted to his colleagues to help him.
They didn’t, instead watching on as their fellow officer was shot in the face with a pistol. The bullet, fired from about 18 inches away, entered under his eye and lodged in his jaw.
The ‘line of duty’ almost cost Frank Serpico (pictured, Al Pacino as Serpico) his life. In February 1971 he and three other plain-clothes police colleagues went to an address in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after being tipped off that a drug dealer was selling heroin there
As he lay bleeding on the floor, his partners arrested the suspects rather than try to save him. It fell instead to an elderly tenant in the building to dial the emergency services, kneeling beside Serpico and squeezing his hand as he reassured him he would live.
The officer’s fate, dramatised in the riveting 1973 film Serpico starring Al Pacino, just may have been a consequence of his decision to expose the rampant corruption within the New York Police Department.
Viewers glued to Line of Duty, the BBC drama about the work of AC-12, a fictional anti-police corruption unit, might raise an eyebrow at the sheer number of bent coppers in the series, the latest of which finishes on Sunday night. But Serpico — who turned 85 last week —wouldn’t be surprised.
Surrounded by officers either taking bribes from criminals or turning a blind eye to it, he was the archetypal lone voice, the courageous whistleblower who nearly lost his life exposing the truth.
As the only Spanish speaker, Serpico (Picuted: Al Pacino as Serpico) was assigned the hazardous task of pretending to be a junkie to persuade the Latino dealer and his cronies to let them in
Born in Brooklyn to Italian immigrants, Francis — the son of a Neapolitan shoemaker — dreamed of joining the police as a child. He did so aged 23 in 1959, after a few years in the army. Serpico earned a reputation as a zealous and hardworking officer who was never off duty.
He was always unconventional, destined to work in plain clothes as he didn’t look remotely like a cop. Short and muscular, he had long hair and sported a beard. He dressed flamboyantly: off duty he was a hippy, wearing beads, flares and earrings, while on duty he had a passion for elaborate disguises. He dressed as vagrants, rabbis and doctors, even posing as a London barrister called ‘Llewellyn’.
He had a bohemian lifestyle — a hedonistic ladies’ man, he had a passion for opera and ballet, and lived in New York’s counterculture capital of Greenwich Village.
Serpico was so unlike the average cop, his fellow officers were naturally suspicious. But what most alarmed them was his refusal to accept the culture of bribery.
New York City police officer Frank Serpico sits with his attorney, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, during a press conference concerning his allegations of widespread corruption within the NYPD
He rejected even the lowest level of corruption, the police tradition of accepting free meals in restaurants, and was gobsmacked when his patrol partner let a motorist pay $35 to overlook a traffic offence.
However when he moved to a unit policing the lucrative industries of illegal gambling and prostitution, he discovered the graft amounted to serious money.
One day, an officer passed him an envelope, saying simply it was from ‘Jewish Max’. Inside was $300 (about $2,500 now).
Jewish Max ran an illegal gambling operation and this was Serpico’s share of his monthly payment to be left alone.
Serpico could no longer keep quiet and, through a friend, contacted the Department of Investigation — a secretive New York equivalent of Line of Duty’s AC-12 that tackled fraud and corruption among city employees.
When even a senior officer told him to forget it, Serpico began to realise even his supposedly ‘honest’ colleagues were willing to see corruption in the force persist.
Serpico was transferred to the Bronx, assured his new colleagues there were scrupulously honest. In fact, they were even more corrupt. One officer blithely informed him he could make at least $800 a month from kickbacks from criminals paying for immunity.
Serpico could no longer keep quiet and, through a friend, contacted the Department of Investigation — a secretive New York equivalent of Line of Duty’s AC-12 that tackled fraud and corruption among city employees
The payouts, he revealed, were routinely collected in a system known as the ‘pad’ because payers’ names were efficiently recorded on a pad of paper.
Serpico was sometimes partnered with a ‘bag man’ who collected the cash. The money-grubbing cops were so proficient at tracking down non-payers that Serpico concluded they could have cleaned the city up in a week had they devoted the same energy to fighting crime.
In 1967, he started telling everything he knew to senior officials at police headquarters and City Hall.
Although he had all they needed to prosecute, they dragged their feet. Serpico’s position was becoming more dangerous by the day, as he rubbed shoulders with the colleagues he was implicating.
There were other honest officers but they were never brave enough to come forward. Serpico refused to be cowed, arresting suspects off and ignoring angry colleagues.
Word spread — allegedly, senior officers leaked it — that he was spilling the beans and Serpico became a pariah. Colleagues patted him down to ensure he wasn’t wearing a recording device. One officer pulled a knife on him, snarling: ‘I ought to cut your tongue out.’
When Serpico arrested an illegal gambler who’d been protected, the suspect ominously pointed his finger at him as if he were pulling a trigger. Serpico’s ‘own kind’ would ‘do’ him, he said.
Eventually, Serpico gave up waiting for officialdom to do anything and went to the Press. In April 1970, the New York Times ran a front-page exposé.
The mayor was forced to set up an independent public inquiry, the Knapp Commission. Serpico was its star witness, ending his lonely crusade as he testified that ‘the atmosphere does not yet exist in which an honest police officer can act without fear or ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers’.
The police commissioner abruptly resigned, scores of senior officers were cleared out and investigators exposed a culture of wholesale corruption in which individual bribes were as high as $25,000 ($170,000 now) and annual backhanders in a single police department amounted to $4 million ($27 million now).
It emerged corrupt officers divided themselves into ‘grass eaters’ and ‘meat eaters’: the former simply turned a blind eye to illicit operations while the ‘carnivores’ strong-armed drug users, prostitutes and pimps into giving them money.
And, just as Line of Duty’s writer Jed Mercurio kills off characters, showing the mortal risk to police investigating bad apples within the force, Serpico himself became a target after he blew the whistle on NYPD corruption.
After Serpico was shot in the face, it became clear some of his colleagues wouldn’t be happy until he was dead. Among the first ‘get well’ cards he received in hospital were anonymous notes regretting that he’d survived.
His superiors accepted the claims of his partners in the drugs raid that they’d done their best to help him — and even decorated them.
Serpico took the hint and retired aged 36. He moved to Switzerland and then to the Netherlands where he married a Dutch woman. When she died of cancer and her parents took custody of their two children, he returned to the U.S. and moved to a one-room cabin deep in the woods in upstate New York.
There are still bullet fragments in his head, he remains deaf in one ear and he blames post-traumatic stress disorder for his fuse. The shooting left him lame in one leg but his antique English walking stick conceals a sword inside.
Serpico remains bitter about his treatment, outspoken that police corruption remains a problem and paranoid about his safety. ‘I protect myself,’ he said in February. ‘But if my time has come, there’s no better way than taking out some crooked cops.’
Superintendent Ted Hastings, scourge of bent coppers in Line of Duty, would surely agree.
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