New York Magazine

 
 
 

Serpico Testifies
 
May 3, 1971

When: October 1971

Background: For years officer Frank Serpico testified against bad cops, collected evidence against corruption in the New York City police department, and repeatedly failed to get superiors to act on his allegations. He wasn't a popular guy in the precincts.

Getting nowhere inside the system, Serpico contributed to an April 1970 New York Times expose that reported that police were earning millions of dollars a year from payments from drug dealers, mobsters, and even small businesses. The story leads Mayor Lindsay to form the Knapp commission the following month to investigate the charges. A year later Serpico is shot in the face during a drug raid but survives. Officers do not call for aid and Serpico believes he was set up.

"A high-ranking police official said later, 'that when word came in that Serpico had been shot, this building shook. We were terrified that a cop had done it'."
— From the May 1971 New York article, "Portrait of an Honest Cop" by Robert Daly

The testimony: In October of 1971, Serpico testified in front of the Knapp Commission: "The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which honest police officers can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers." He retires from the force the following year.

Why he mattered: "Frank Serpico! The first police officer not only in the history of the New York Police Department, but in the history of any police department in the whole United States, to step forward to report and subsequently testify openly about widespread, systematic cop corruption-payoffs amounting to millions of dollars." — Peter Maas, author of the book Serpico, in the 25th anniversary issue of New York Magazine.

The movie: Serpico starring Al Pacino (1973)

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