eyes on the U.S.

Serpico, Iconic Cop Whistleblower On Snowden And Ferguson

At 79, Frank Serpico, the former New York police whistleblower immortalized by Al Pacino is still a rebel at heart, as cranky and idealistic as ever.

Serpico in 2011
Serpico in 2011
Albertine Bourget

HUDSON — His tall, slender figure is topped by a simple wool hat, as the man glares at us from behind his sunglasses. "How am I? Not too bad for a man my age. Well, I do have this shrapnel that sometimes hurt," he says, his ringed hand pointing to his head.

Forty-five-year-old scars. He then curses the doctors who want to give him a new hipbone and crutches. At nearly 80 — he'll celebrate it on April 14 — Frank Serpico still looks good. The interview, which took place a few months ago in the unlikely cafeteria of an organic supermarket on the outskirts of Hudson, two hours north of Manhattan, made it clear: The legendary whistleblower is still driven by the same inner rage that has always guided him.

A police officer in Brooklyn, he caused a sensation in the 1960s and 1970s by officially denouncing — a first — the rampant corruption inside the New York Police Department. Faced with the silence of his hierarchy, he refused to remain quiet. When his accusations made it on the front page of The New York Times in April 1970, the then mayor, John Lindsay, decided to launch an enquiry: the Knapp Commission.

Among his own, Serpico is seen as a traitor. In Feb. 1971, he was struck by a bullet in the face during a drug bust that went wrong for reasons that are still obscure. His colleagues refrained from calling for help; a resident of the building next door had to call in an ambulance. In 1973, director Sidney Lumet, in Serpico, immortalized him with an Al Pacino who would later receive his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

Since then, Lumet has died, Pacino struggles to find Oscar-worthy roles, and Frank Serpico keeps battling corruption and injustice. Last year, he was a Democrat candidate for the local council of the village where he lives, Stuyvesant, which has a population of 2,000, to denounce the local authorities' "small agreements among friends."

His defender-of-the-law character comes from his own childhood, he says. To raise their brood in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, his parents, Neapolitan immigrants, worked their fingers to the bone: his mother in a garment sweatshop, his father repairing shoes. The Christmas tree always came after Christmas, decorated with silver strings from unwrapped cigarette packs. "I saw too much injustice and I thought it was up to the police to fix it," he says dryly.

Never forgiven

He doesn't regret any of his whistleblowing, even if the NYPD "never forgave" him. "I can say I contributed to civil rights," he says. "If you toss a stone in a pond, you get ripples. With a good stone, you get good ripples."

From the depths of his countryside, where he bought a wooded plot of land when he still wore a uniform, he closely follows the world's travails. The controversies linked to police brutality, especially against young black people, enrage him. "They have a badge, a weapon and think they're God almighty," says Serpico. "Whether it's in Ferguson or anywhere else, police officers fear for their lives. They're not trained and they're given a license to kill! If you tremble in the face of a mouse, how are you meant to do your police work correctly? At the same time, they're not backed by their hierarchy."

Serpico says the real problems come from on high. "Corruption comes from above. The greatest country in the world? Our democracy has been shattered! See how they treated Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, or the drones they use to bomb innocent people," he growls. "Then when you shine a light on what the powerful do, they blame the person who is shining the light."

Before he became a police officer, Serpico served two years in the army, in Korea. "We Americans have given up the capacity to think for ourselves. We've lost our principles, our moral sense. Now, everyone wants everything, without agreeing to sacrifice anything. Look at those spoiled kids," he grumbles while watching a little girl throwing a tantrum to get candy at the checkout. "I'm not optimistic. People want to be good, but they choose heroes who'll do the job for them. Even though I still want to believe in individuals. Gandhi or Martin Luther King weren't afraid to say things out loud and clear."

Universal ideals

The hero — who categorically refuses to have his coffee payed for him — admits that he sometimes feels "exhausted." But he still receives letters, emails, calls for help. "Today, people still remember something I did more than 40 years ago and are grateful. That reassures me," he says. "And it's in my nature to want to make the world a better place."

His more recent battles include giving up on meat, only eating organic and driving a hybrid car. "We send astronauts to space. Shouldn't we first clean up the mess we leave on earth?"

Serpico's mood relaxes as we switch the conversation to Switzerland, where he moved after leaving the NYPD in the mid-1970s. "I remember a Christmas Eve. I was driving to Aigle a town in Switzerland and was listening to Albinoni's Adagio. With all that snow, it was like a fairy tale. I thought: ‘This is where I want to live.' I rented a chalet in Le Sépey. I was happy there." It was in Switzerland that the FBI came to try and convince him to return to the U.S. to testify once again. He refused then, although he eventually returned.

His foray into politics, perhaps inevitable, was short-lived, defeated in the local race by his Republican rival by about 100 votes. "That'll spare me a good headache," he said. Serpico now says he's thinking about spending the rest of his life in Italy. Or why not Cuba. Always in pursuit of a better world.

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Migrant associations and activists are saying there are not enough politicians of migrant origin in the new German Bundestag. But are such politicians guaranteed to support policies that benefit migrants? There are prominent examples that suggest otherwise.

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Rainer Haubrich

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