Whistle-Blower Still Sees System in Need of Repair

In 1970, Frank Serpico's accusations led to a major shakeup in New York's police department

FRANK SERPICO sits in a small New York restaurant, sipping a warm bowl of lentil soup and wondering out loud about the American system.

"What do you think of it all?" asks the ex-cop who was at the center of New York's police-corruption probe 25 years ago. "Do you think it works?" He pauses, then announces that, in his opinion, the political system, the justice system, and everything in between is badly in need of repair. He remembers how he tried to fix it once, a long time ago.

In 1970, Frank Serpico went to The New York Times with a detailed description of rampant corruption in the ranks of the city's police department. He went to the Times after spending years trying to work within the system, with little success. So with three colleagues, he went public. By then he was already a marked man in the police department, he says, branded "unreliable" by fellow officers because he refused to go "on the pad" - that is, take a share of the regular payoffs paid to police.

One year after he went to the press and testified in front of a grand jury that resulted in the arrest of more than 20 police officers, Serpico was shot in the head during a drug raid in a Brooklyn apartment building. Was he set up by his colleagues? Serpico will not discuss the role his partners played that evening. But the incident ended Serpico's career as a police officer, 12 years after it had started. After recovering from his wounds and testifying before New York City's Knapp Commission, formed to investigate allegations of widespread police corruption, Serpico moved to Europe. He lived in the Netherlands for five years before returning to the United States. His story reached the world through a best-selling book by Peter Maas and a critically acclaimed 1973 film starring Al Pacino.

It appears that little has changed since Serpico became a household name in the '70s. Last year, allegations of corruption filed against New York City police officers rose a staggering 28 percent, according to the New York Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau. And while such allegations fell 17 percent in the first six months of this year compared with last year, police officials say they still are troubled by the concentration of such complaints in minority neighborhoods with drug problems.

This spring, 16 officers from the 48th Precinct in the Bronx were indicted on charges of robbery, larceny, filing false police reports, and fraud. Over the past two years, police officers in New Orleans and Philadelphia have also been charged with numerous offenses in high-profile cases.

Today Serpico lives a simple life in New York. He tends his garden, works as a massage therapist, and stays within his small circle of friends. His privacy is paramount, although he says he is no longer in hiding and doesn't look over his shoulder the way he used to. When the topic of police corruption comes up, especially in light of allegations surrounding Los Angeles Police Lt. Mark Fuhrman, the lead investigator in the double murder case against O.J. Simpson, he just shakes his head.

"Corruption doesn't exist in a vacuum," he says. "You can't have it at the lowest level if you don't have it at the highest level. It permeates the system.

"I saw many examples of the police doing things, high officials, that were contrary to the law," Serpico says. "They would just say, 'This is the way you do it.... It's a violation of people's rights, but this is the way you do it...' And you're practically powerless to do anything about it."

Nor does he have much faith in commissions and panels set up to investigate corruption.

"If you need a watchdog, there is something wrong.... A watchdog is an excuse."

"What's going to happen from the Waco hearings?" he asks. "Is something going to change?" He points to the infamous hearings held by Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s: "That's a classic example of what people can do with hearings. It serves the people who are in power, that's all. It doesn't serve the people."

When Serpico is asked about his last few years on the police force, the pace of his speech slows, and he seems to search with more care for the right words. It is clearly a topic he'd rather not discuss.

"I know there is one person who knows what I went through," he says. He is referring to Joseph Trimboli, New York Police Department Internal Affairs officer, who spent five years on the trail of fellow officer Michael Dowd, nicknamed the "Dirtiest Cop Ever." Officer Trimboli's work led to a 14-year prison sentence for Mr. Dowd, who had organized a band of corrupt Brooklyn police officers into a drug-dealing ring. But what irks Serpico is that the media seemed more interested in Dowd than in Trimboli, the hero of the case. The thought of the bad guy getting the big-money book deal bothers Serpico, who says it's time to recognize the good guys.

"We're always picking out the bad guys and saying how few there are, and we never pick out the good guys," he says. "It's like if you're training a dog. They say a dog learns more by the reward method than by the punishment method. I think it's time we start rewarding the good guys, instead of pointing out the bad guys. We know the bad guys are there, they're all around us - they're in government, they're in religion, they're in medical professions. And that's how you start to resolve [corruption]: You start to show that it pays to be good, and not the old expression about good guys finishing last."

Some things haven't changed since Serpico blew the whistle on police corruption. He says it is still simply a battle of good and evil, principle against greed. It's a battle that can be won, he adds. Whether it is corruption in government, business, religion, or law enforcement, his advice is simple, and he ends the interview with it.

"Verbeter de wereld, begin met je zelf," Serpico states in perfectly accented Dutch. "That was one of the first things I learned in Holland from my neighbor on the other side of the fence, he said, 'To improve the world, begin with yourself.' "

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.