Frank Serpico was a New York City police officer during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period of time during which corruption was endemic throughout the department. More than patrol officers, who routinely accepted money to ignore certain types of crimes like illegal gambling and zoning violations, plain-clothes officers...
Frank Serpico was a New York City police officer during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period of time during which corruption was endemic throughout the department. More than patrol officers, who routinely accepted money to ignore certain types of crimes like illegal gambling and zoning violations, plain-clothes officers and detectives were particularly susceptible to offers of money in exchange for either protecting criminal activities or, at a minimum, ignoring known transgressions.
New York City was a crime-infested metropolis during Serpico’s tenure with the police department. Street crimes like muggings, rapes, armed robberies, burglaries, and drug trafficking were rampant. The NYPD, as often occurs in large, densely populated cities, was spread thin, and many officers had grown weary of having arrests dismissed by prosecutors or judges for what officers deemed trivial technicalities but which legal experts understood as transgressions against legal provisions regarding search and seizure and the “right [of suspects] to remain silent” during police interrogations. Additionally, broader societal transformations were changing the attitudes of a lot of people towards law enforcement, with counter-cultural developments influencing public-police relations.
While corruption in the NYPD had been a problem well-before this period, the prevalence of drugs, in particular, made the problem of confronting police corruption even more challenging. Drug money exceeded proceeds from other types of crimes, and traffickers' enormous profits made it easier to subvert law enforcement through bribery.
Some officials within the NYPD were fully cognizant of the scale of corruption endemic throughout the department, but the will to address the problem was seriously lacking up and down the chain of command. Ranking officials chose to remain ignorant out of a sense of loyalty to their officers and to the department. Those officers who considered reporting instances of corruption could face ostracism among their colleagues, or worse. A police officer perceived by his or her peers as disloyal, and this was the case with Frank Serpico, was not only isolated within his or her precinct but could even be denied back-up by other police officers in the midst of a potentially life-threatening incident.
Corruption issues were handled by not being handled, at least within the department. That is why outside commissions, most prominently, the Knapp Commission, were established. By subpoenaing witnesses and compelling officers to testify under oath, a small dent was put into the systemic problem of corruption. That subpoena power, however, ran out, and without that authority, the commission’s influence waned.
The NYPD has continued to experience large-scale cases of corruption among its officers. The money that can be attained relative to the average police officer’s salary remains too enticing for some to ignore. The department continues to need to scrutinize its personnel on a more frequent basis, including the use of random polygraph exams to detect instances of dishonesty that reveal underlying corruption. While such policies are expensive, and it can be assumed that the police union would strenuously object, they are necessary.