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Forty-two years after he left the New York City Police Department, Frank Serpico never thought he’d still be fighting for police reform.
In the 1960s, Serpico was behind one of the biggest scandals in NYPD history. After being wounded in the line of duty, he testified before a grand jury and exposed widespread corruption throughout the department. He says that when he spoke out about the officers selling drugs, guns, shields and favors, he was shut out by the police force.
“I still have a bullet in my head,” he said, “and I was lucky to come out with my life.”
In 1973, Serpico's story was immortalized in the Oscar-nominated film that bears his name, with his role famously portrayed by Al Pacino. But these days, the 78-year-old stays out of the limelight. His interview with America Tonight was the first time he's spoken on camera in years.
We caught up with Serpico in Upstate New York about the spat between the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio, the issue of excessive force in police departments across the country and why it's so hard to hold officers accountable when they shoot unarmed civilians. The questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Looking at what's happening, not just in New York, but in Ferguson and across the country, what compelled you to come and speak out now about what's happening between the police and the public?
This is a national issue. In some places with little more than a high school equivalency diploma, you get a gun and a shield and you can take a man's life like that and not even be accountable. Where are we going here?
You’ve talked a lot and written a lot about the culture within the police force, and how that culture extends to the same body that then investigates their actions. Can you describe that culture a little bit?
It’s that you don't talk about your own kind; you don't expose your own kind or maybe we'll expose you. So it's like one hand washes the other. But that shouldn't be the rule in an honorable, respectful profession.
At least in Ferguson, a lot of people have talked about a predominantly white police force policing a majority African-American community. Do you think that's the problem? Do you think the way to a solution is to just diversify the police force?
The police should reflect the society they're policing. The other thing is it's a matter of credibility ... I'm not saying put your life on the line. That's not what you're asked to do. But you're also not asked to come home safe at the risk of an innocent life.
And we are not living in a vacuum. This is happening. It's the same lie as [the] drone program. You drop a drone and you kill 28 innocent people. Do you expect to gain the respect and the hearts and minds of the people [when] you're killing their children and their families? It's the same thing with the police. We have to realize – lest we lose our moral fiber in this culture and elsewhere – that when any member of a family loses a loved one, they all grieve alike.
Why do you think that the police are incapable of policing themselves?
I only speak from my own experience, but why? Because they want to garner favor with their buddies and keep going up the ladder. You don't make waves. You go along to get along. And when that mentality gets changed, that's when things will start to improve.
The police should reflect the society they're policing.
What do you think about the way the NYPD commissioner and the mayor have handled things so far with the Eric Garner case?
They’re making good gestures. Let's see if they follow through.
But the police en masse turned their backs on the mayor. What do you think about that?
Hey, if I were the commissioner, I'd fire them. That's setting a bad precedent, not only to the society, [but] to other police officers, and [it's] disrespect[ful] to the men that gave their lives to that uniform … There are terrible hypocrisies within people that wear that uniform. It’s just that they have too much power and they don't want to give up that power. There's no compassion.
I've had officers write me back when I call them on things and they say, "Well, maybe you just run with the poodles, you know?" I said, "I'm not looking for fans. I didn't start this looking for fans. I started this to look for justice." And you have to have respect for another human being. You're not the judge, the jury and the executioner; that's not your job. But there's this mentality.
Why do you think is it so difficult to hold police accountable when they shoot unarmed civilians?
Because the district attorney works with the police and it's usually their job to convict anybody that they bring in. It’s usually not to find the police officer guilty of some infraction, so you might say there's a bit of favoritism there.
Do you think you'll see change in police forces in your lifetime? Or anytime soon?
In a way, I would never have thought that I'd be sitting here today 42 years later talking about pretty much the same subject. So don't blame the people when they rise up and want change, because that's what this society needs in order to survive.