“Money and power corrupt, and they are color blind…”
That’s what legendary NYPD cop Frank Serpico writes. You may know Serpico from the 1973 Al Pacino blockbuster that bears his name. But what you may not know is this recipient of the NYPD Medal of Honor—the department’s highest award for bravery in action—is to this day despised in NYC police circles. Cops from around the globe tell him he’s the reason they went into law enforcement… but NYC cops still send him hate mail. The New York Police Museum even refused his guns and other memorabilia.
It’s all because Serpico committed an unforgivable heresy: He “blew the whistle.” He exposed the “institutionalized graft, corruption, and nepotism” that had spread throughout his entire department… and still exists today.
But as Serpico notes, corruption is not unique to the NYPD. Almost every police department in the country maintains the big “Blue Wall of Silence.” It’s an “us vs. them” mentality that works like their own version of the Mafia. Officers who break this unwritten code often won’t even get backup from their fellows in emergency life-or-death situations (as Serpico didn’t).
The post-9/11 national security state has served to intensify the divide between the police and their communities. Federal programs have “bulked up” local police departments with machine guns, body armor, and tank-like vehicles repurposed from Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, police officers often resemble occupying soldiers more than public servants. As Serpico says, “All that firepower and armor puts an even greater wall between the police and society, and solidifies that ‘us-versus-them’ feeling.”
But there are solutions. Below are Serpico’s recommendations to improve police accountability and their ties to the communities they serve.
1. Strengthen the selection process and psychological screening process for police recruits. Police departments are simply a microcosm of the greater society. If your screening standards encourage corrupt and forceful tendencies, you will end up with a larger concentration of these types of individuals.
2. Provide ongoing, examples-based training and simulations. Not only telling but showing police officers how they are expected to behave and react is critical.
3. Require community involvement from police officers so they know the districts and the individuals they are policing. This will encourage empathy and understanding.
4. Enforce the laws against everyone, including police officers. When police officers do wrong, use those individuals as examples of what not to do—so that others know that this behavior will not be tolerated. And tell the police unions and detective endowment associations they need to keep their noses out of the justice system.
5. Support the good guys. Honest cops who tell the truth and behave in exemplary fashion should be honored, promoted, and held up as strong positive examples of what it means to be a cop.
6. Last but not least, police cannot police themselves. Develop permanent, independent boards to review incidents of police corruption and brutality—and then fund them well and support them publicly. Only this can change a culture that has existed since the beginnings of the modern police department.
Click here to read Officer Frank Serpico’s full eye-opening article. Please consider sharing it with others.