The Untold Truth of Frank Serpico: The NYPD Whistleblower Who Uncovered Corruption

Prior to April 1970, when New York Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed a panel to investigate alleged corruption in the New York Police Department (NYPD), the department was riddled with widespread, systemic corruption that saw a number of law enforcement officials behave like members of the mob, receiving payoffs amounting to millions of dollars. The main person of the two people that went ahead to shine a light on this was NYPD officer Frank Serpico, whose story was later written into a Hollywood production in the 1973 film Serpico. Al Pacino played the titular character and received an Oscar nomination for his effort.

Who Is Frank Serpico?

On the 14th of April, 1936, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, Frank Serpico was welcomed into the world as Francesco Vincent Serpico. He is the youngest child of his Italian immigrant parents; Vincenzo and Maria Giovanna Serpico, who are originally from the southern Italian city of Naples.

Details of Serpico’s upbringing are few and far between. Much of what is known about his early life comes from when he enlisted into the United States Army at the age of 17. He went on to spend two years in South Korea as an infantryman before returning home to work as a private investigator. After a while, he enrolled into the Brooklyn College and also worked as a youth counselor.

At the age of 23, Frank Serpico joined the NYPD as a probationary patrolman. After a year with the men in blue, he became a full patrolman and was assigned to the 81st precinct. In the course of his career, Serpico would go on to spend two years with the Bureau of Criminal Identification before being assigned to work as a plainclothes officer.

How Did He Uncover Police Corruption?

Working as a plainclothes officer charged with uncovering vice racketeering in the city, Frank Serpico moved across the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan boroughs of New York. It was during this time that he uncovered fellow police officers being involved in widespread systematic corruption.

In 1967, Serpico made a report of what he had discovered to his superiors but nothing was done to the effect. It was not until he came across another police officer, Sergeant David Durk, that headway began to be made. On the 25th of April 1970, national attention was drawn to the matter after Serpico contributed a front-page New York Times story on the widespread corruption in the NYPD. Due to this, Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed a five-member panel to investigate the allegations. The panel, which was informally known as the Knapp Commission, went on to confirm the existence of widespread corruption and made a number of recommendations.

While the commission’s investigations were going on, however, Frank Serpico was set up by fellow officers to be killed in a drug arrest attempt. He was shot in the face just below the eye by a suspect after he attempted making a fake purchase in order for the drug dealer to open the door. While bleeding profusely on the floor, his police colleagues refused to call police headquarters to indicate that an officer had been shot. An elderly man next door, however, called emergency services and stayed with Serpico until another police car arrived and took him to hospital.

What Happened To Him After He Retired From The NYPD?

Frank Serpico
Frank Serpico preparing to testify in front of the Knapp Commission (image source)

On the 15th of June 1972, six months before the Knapp Commission issued its final report on the widespread corruption in the NYPD, Frank Serpico retired. A month before his decision, however, he was given the Medal of Honor, NYPD’s highest honor which according to him was handed over like a pack of cigarettes without any formal ceremony.

The retired cop immediately chose to leave the United States for Europe, spending time in Switzerland and then the Netherlands where he found love. By 1980, after his Dutch wife Marianne passed away, Serpico returned to the US and has been involved in speaking out against police brutality, civil liberties, and police corruption.

He notably spoke following Abner Louima’s torture in 1997 and Amadou Diallo’s killing in 1999 by NYPD officers. In 2015, Frank Serpico made his first foray into politics by running for a seat on the town board of Stuyvesant, New York, where he resides. His bid was however unsuccessful.


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