Interview

Serpico on Police Racism: ‘We Have This Virus Among Us’

A renowned “good cop” says police abuse and corruption are like the coronavirus, infecting departments throughout the world.

Frank Serpico attends a film screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on Dec. 5, 2011. Ben Gabbe/Getty Images
Frank Serpico attends a film screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on Dec. 5, 2011. Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

Frank Serpico attends a film screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on Dec. 5, 2011. Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

Nearly half a century ago, Frank Serpico became a household name in the United States—and in many countries around the world—after he was portrayed by Al Pacino in the classic 1973 movie Serpico. The award-winning film told the true-life story of the New York City detective’s efforts to expose corruption and abuse inside the police department. In 1971, Serpico was awarded the Medal of Honor, the New York City Police Department’s highest award for bravery in action, and he is still ranked among the American Film Institute’s all-time movie heroes. Now 84, Serpico lives quietly outside Albany, New York, but he remains vocal in speeches, articles, and activist campaigns pushing for police reform. And Serpico says Americans are still fighting the same fundamental problem today that he struggled with as a young cop who refused to take bribes in New York during the 1960s and early ’70s: a near-total lack of accountability over abuses. Then as now, Serpico says, police departments have proved incapable of investigating themselves, and district attorneys typically look the other way, fearful of offending the politically powerful police unions. 

In recent weeks, that problem exploded into worldwide furor once again after a white Minneapolis police officer was videoed casually suffocating a handcuffed black man, George Floyd, to death. Many experts said that had it not been for the video, the officer, Derek Chauvin—who was later fired and charged with second-degree murder—would likely still be on the Minneapolis police force. Serpico notes that there is a tragic continuum here: Much as police abuses today are being exposed only by citizen bystanders with cell phones, his only recourse 50 years ago was to go to the New York Times after he discovered that the NYPD was incapable of investigating itself and the city government wouldn’t act. Now, with Congress and state and local legislators finally confronting the problem of accountability and abuse by proposing new legislation, Serpico says there may be hope at last—but there’s a long way to go. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: Were you surprised by the reaction to George Floyd’s killing?

Frank Serpico: The fuel has been pooling for decades—the Floyd thing was the spark that ignited it. It had gone too far, too long. Police corruption is endemic. It’s been there since the beginning of policing, when police officers had to buy their jobs. What is happening now is also a manifestation of that corruption. Brutality is police corruption. This is a window of opportunity to have some police officers finally see that, hey, we have inherited the sins of our brothers and it behooves us now to do something about it. I’m in touch with police all over the country and the world. Until now all my communications have been about whistleblowers and corruption and how the whistleblower almost always becomes the victim. The problem is that in most cases the agencies they go to in order to tell them about wrongdoing inside or outside the department respond along the lines of: If we did this [prosecuted police officers], we would undermine the stability of society. Or they say, “We can’t afford a scandal. It would undermine public confidence in our police.” But what we’re seeing now is that it already has been undermined. 

FP: The reaction has been even greater and more intense—certainly more global—than five or six years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement erupted after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner was suffocated by a New York police officer. Garner, like Floyd, cried out, “I can’t breathe,” before he died.

It’s called solidarity. Because people are fed up around the world.

FS: I think what drove it home this time, as didn’t happen with Eric Garner, is this was so in your face. It was all there on video: One human being slowly killing another helpless human being. It really went beyond the pale. So hopefully the movement continues. We had the coronavirus, which is still ongoing, a lot of people losing their jobs, and the boil burst. It was the perfect storm. I feel that the coronavirus is equivalent to police corruption. We have this virus among us, and we don’t know who has it. Police corruption too is a virus.

FP: The international reaction has been extraordinary, don’t you think?

FS: It’s called solidarity. Because people are fed up around the world. Look at what’s happening with the police in Turkey, where they’re shooting at these communities. It’s about poverty in these communities, desperation. What has to be addressed is this economic disparity in the country and the world. We’re wasting so much money on BS technology that would be better used to fix this problem.

Al Pacino in a scene from the 1973 film Serpico.

Al Pacino in a scene from the 1973 film Serpico.Paramount

FP: How much of this has to do with racism, plain and simple?

FS: There is something in the culture that is unmistakably racist. I don’t know how many white guys there are out there, in whatever position, who wake up every day and say, “What am I going to do today to fight racism?” And I bet just about every black man wakes up and says, “Jeez, am I going to get my ass beat today?” A lot of people of color have PTSD over this, whether white people, especially cops, understand that or not. They panic at the sight of the uniform. It’s almost become part of their DNA. When I was a cop, I was working one day with this white guy, and we got a complaint to investigate. We go to the scene, and there’s a white man and a black man. My partner says to the white man, “What’s the problem?” And the black guy says, “I’m the one that called.” He was automatically suspect, because of the color of his skin. That’s one reason why black communities are so frightened and angry.

FP: Police would say, well, most of the crime is in the black and minority communities, so that’s where they have to have the heaviest presence.

FS: Where is the most poverty? Because you go into those communities, do you have to abuse them, or do you treat them like human beings? It’s about basic human behavior. Under [then-New York Mayor Rudy] Giuliani, when they massacred Amadou Diallo [a black man shot at 41 times by police in 1999], the investigation was filled with lies and cover-ups. They said his wallet, which he was reaching for, was a gun. The cops even said such things exist, wallet guns. Everything to discredit the innocent hard-working victim, albeit one who was black. The system has to change where police have immunity. The corruption inside the departments, ironically, is only making things more dangerous for the police by making people in those communities angrier, as we saw in Ferguson.

The corruption inside the departments, ironically, is only making things more dangerous for the police by making people in those communities angrier, as we saw in Ferguson.

FP: In your famous testimony to the Knapp Commission in 1971, after you had recovered from being shot in the face during a drug bust and left to die by your fellow officers, you said: “The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which an honest police officer can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers. We must create an atmosphere in which the dishonest officer fears the honest one and not the other way around.” And you said the only way that could occur is if an independent, and especially a permanent, investigative body were formed, since the police power structure can’t investigate itself. Yet that never happened—no permanent body was formed, was it?

FS: No. As a result of the Knapp Commission, many low-level officers were prosecuted, and many more lost their jobs. Unfortunately, the politicians, judges, and prosecutors—the architects of corruption—were never held responsible. The beat cop was just doing their bidding. But the commission disbanded in 1972. I spoke in the late ’90s before the New York City Council about that—putting oversight on the police again. Giuliani vetoed it eight times. And now we see where he is and who his boss is. These things accumulate, and the cancer grows. Can we stop the cancer? The truth is, the past is now. And the present is the future. 

Serpico is surrounded by members of law enforcement as he speaks during a rally to show support for activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in New York on Aug. 19, 2017.

Serpico is surrounded by members of law enforcement as he speaks during a rally to show support for the activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in New York on Aug. 19, 2017. Mary Altaffer/AP

FP: But there are moves for new national legislation. In the last couple of weeks, Sen. Kamala Harris of California sponsored a bill that would include forming a National Police Systems Review Board, which would “collect data and review police shootings and other cases of severe misconduct, and work to issue recommendations and implement safety standards based on evidence revealed in these reviews.” Harris cited the way the National Transportation Safety Board conducts investigations as a model. She was apparently inspired by Michael Bell, the retired Air Force officer whose son was killed by police in 2004 and whose campaign to use the NTSB model and push through a law in Wisconsin saying that police aren’t permitted to investigate their own abuses was one that you helped publicize. Eight states so far have adopted such legislation.

FS: It could be a change, but again is it the same old rhetoric, election campaign bullshit? There’s a lot of rhetoric out there now. A lot of police chiefs are coming out to cover their asses. Show me the action. As they say, show me the money. Because I’ve heard the rhetoric for decades. Even on the Knapp Commission, they were worried about their political careers.

Consider Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, he comes out and says, “I stand with the protesters.” Which is a very nice thing to say, but where the hell were you before this started? He was attorney general[-elect] when Sean Bell [a 23-year-old black man from Queens who was shot to death by police at his bachelor party in 2006] got assassinated, and none of the officers were indicted. I think they were arrested, but all got off. This is typical, the combination of an excess of deadly force and near-total lack of accountability. As long as they’re not unlucky to be videoed by a witness, most cops can still pull out their weapons and fire away without fear that anything will happen to them. All a police officer has to say is that he believes his life was in danger, and he’ll usually get away with it. What do you think that does to their psychology as they patrol the streets—this sense of invulnerability? Some of these cops get suspended or dismissed, but they go on to be cops at other venues. And what does that mean, to be suspended or put on leave with pay? That’s not punishment—that’s a reward. So that has to change. There are so many aspects that have to be changed. Right now the cops are in the driver’s seat, and the citizens are being ridden roughshod over. 

And in the end you just can’t have anybody involved with the police doing these investigations. The fox cannot watch the henhouse. This is what I found. I’m a graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Most of the professors there are ex-police officials. They write their books, and none of them will be very critical of the police agency. One example is James Fyfe, the former deputy police commissioner of training at the New York Police Academy, who defended Diallo’s killers. In his book Above the Law, which was required reading at law class at Columbia University, he also falsified the evidence in my shooting to absolve the cops. Even today I am persona non grata in the NYPD. Patrick Murphy, who was police commissioner at the time, wrote in his book that I shouldn’t have been promoted. 

The blue wall of silence is even stronger than omertà, the code of silence in the Mafia. Everybody, including the police unions, is involved.

FP: A recent study by the University of California, Berkeley found that “at least 630 police officers have been convicted of a crime in California over the past decade—an average of more than one a week.” And it said, “Nearly a fifth of those officers are still working or were still on the job more than a year after sentencing.”

FS: This is not just police corruption—this is about a systematic culture. When you’re in it, you become a member. The blue wall of silence is even stronger than omertà, the code of silence in the Mafia. Everybody, including the police unions, is involved. Even Michael Dowd [a notoriously corrupt New York City police officer who later served 12 years in prison] talked about how, when he first became a cop, he was told by his fellow trainees about a cop who turned in other cops. That guy somehow later fell off a balcony at a party and died. On and on it goes. 

The officer who killed George Floyd had, I don’t know how many, charges against him, but because the police have no accountability, the public cannot see their record. If you see this guy had 15 charges against him, and he’s still not held accountable—how is he allowed to continue being a cop? 

FP: How serious a problem is the militarization of the police?

FS: When I was a cop, we had .38 Specials. They weren’t all that effective. In fact, I violated the rules and got myself a Browning 9 mm automatic. The problem was when the police transferred to 9 mm, they also went to a 40 mm, even more powerful. And semi-automatic weapons. In my day, we were taught to maximize efficiency. Off-duty, I had a snub-nosed .38 Special with only five rounds. I always carried it, and once I got involved where I had just seen a lethal shooting, and I chased a guy and fired one warning shot and ended up apprehending the guy with four rounds in my revolver. Today you see cops firing an entire magazine, dropping it, using another magazine, just emptying their guns and automatic weapons without thinking, in acts of callousness or racism. Amadou Diallo in New York was shot at 41 times in 1999 for no obvious reason. Officers fired 50 rounds at Sean Bell and his friends. All this uncontrolled firepower, combined with a lack of good training and adequate screening of police academy candidates, has led to a major drop in standards.

All this uncontrolled firepower, combined with a lack of good training and adequate screening of police academy candidates, has led to a major drop in standards.

And now they come around with the tanks. It’s very incendiary seeing these militarized vehicles. It creates a war zone atmosphere on both sides. Sure, police officers have the right to defend themselves with maximum force when warranted, in cases where, say, they are taking on a barricaded felon armed with an assault weapon. But with more armament should also come more training—police have even killed some of their own with friendly fire in some cases. When you are dealing every day with civilians walking the streets, and you bring in armored vehicles and automatic weapons, it’s all out of proportion. If you don’t have the knowhow, you’re just going to kill innocent people. All that firepower and armor puts an even greater wall between the police and society and enforces that “us against them” feeling.

An “against” attitude creates barriers, an opposition, an enemy. The people are the eyes and ears of the community. Better public relations can create an ally. Police and community working together to each other’s benefit. Cell phones can be utilized to record crimes, making policing more effective, safe, and enjoyable, as it should be when the police and community can say “they” are “us.” People don’t want crime in their community, but they don’t call the cops because they don’t trust the cops.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh