Corruption in the United States of America has been a longstanding and, unfortunately, well-documented issue affecting thousands of people over time. Though it is effectively hidden and underplayed by those that participate, corruption actually spreads to some of the most vital industries in the country, including politics. Perhaps more concerning, however, is the storied history that corruption has had in police departments around the country, with specific emphasis on the New York Police Department which has been highlighted for its egregious embracement of the practice. Frank Serpico, a former NYPD officer, shared his experiences of working in his position as a police officer and recounting in heavy detail the ways that corruption challenged his ideas about the very purpose of the police role in the country. His first-hand account revealed the extent to which corruption infiltrated the NYPD, forcing him to question the reliability of every one of his fellow officers and impacting his ability to carry out his responsibilities. Analyzing Serpico’s experiences allows for a well-rounded and complete understanding of the effects that corruption can have, and how defeating it requires both time and the sustained willingness to expose it to the public.
Peter Maas’ book Serpico provided an extensive look at the way that corruption ravaged the NYPD in the late 20th century, using Serpico’s honest nature to provide a contextual lens. In this book, readers learn that although Serpico struggled immensely with every aspect of corruption, there were a few key elements that frustrated and impacted his performance. Serpico gradually learned that although not every NYPD officer was corrupt the presence of widespread corruption made it near-impossible to understand who could and could not be trusted. At one point, Serpico recalls receiving an envelope with $300 in cash from a fellow officer, likely meant to recruit him into their activities. Serpico quickly looks to turn over the money to his department sergeant who, to Serpico’s surprise, pockets the money with no additional questions and reveals that he too is corrupted (Maas, 2005, p. 178). This experience served as an indication to Serpico that his actions were in no way insulated from the oversight of corrupted officers. He was, in effect, completely isolated and unable to turn to any readily identifiable figure for support in his honesty.
Of course, Serpico’s frustrations were not limited to the relationship that he held with his fellow department officers or supervisors. Above all else, Serpico looked to help New York communities honestly and efficiently, much like the Philadelphia Police Department officers do. Seeing that this would be incredibly difficult given the rampant corruption in the precincts he had belonged to, Serpico set out to join the New York Narcotics Bureau that he had heard was looking for new members. His initial meeting with the bureau’s inspector gave a clear indication that Serpico was more than qualified, but after revealing that he was working as a plainclothes officer the inspector quickly backed off and ultimately passed on Serpico for the position (Maas, 2005, p. 182). Not only was Serpico unable to carry out his responsibilities confidently in the role that he was currently in, but the influence of the police department’s corruption had created tremendous rifts between all departments. It was becoming increasingly difficult for any honest police work to be done because of a fundamental sense of distrust breeding between nearly all law enforcement officials.
It is crucial to note that Serpico’s experiences were indicative of a systemic issue in all police departments. When they are given their badge, police officers are given a level of autonomy and power that is rarely seen in society. They are trusted to act responsibly and intelligently, and the lack of oversight or supervision they receive when performing their duties often creates a sense of hostility when it is later introduced. Many officers, “…resist, and always resent, the demands of management for more documentation…it represents meaningless paperwork compared to their ‘real work’” (Johnson, 2005, p. 76). Because this inability to regulate independent behavior is so deeply rooted in the law enforcement system it is not shocking that Serpico found himself so frustrated at the lack of support he found in trying to challenge corruption.
In spite of the resistance that Serpico encountered as he challenged the influence of corruption, he continued to press on and work to reform the NYPD. His efforts have since been rewarded, as they brought greater light to the extent of the influence that corruption had on precincts around the state and the country. Police reform has consistently remained a pressing subject because of Serpico’s willingness to act as a whistleblower, and his status as one is crucial to recognize because the issue could not realistically be addressed without an understanding of how corruption functions in organizations as a whole. In truth, corruption fundamentally exists as a majority issue because individual instances of corruption, in a department of honest officers, would be quickly stamped out (Punch and Gilmore, 2010, p. 12). In order for corruption to thrive, it has to be accepted or tolerated by the department as a whole, and it is for these reasons that whistleblowers like Serpico are so fundamentally important to creating lasting and necessary reform.
Serpico’s experiences serve as a warning for how corruption can dramatically shape and harm a country. They also serve as encouragement for honest people who are looking to tackle it, as corruption can be tremendously intimidating. Despite the organizational challenges that Serpico faced in his role as an NYPD officer, it was his resiliency that allowed him to remain on the force and continue to learn about how exactly corruption was manifesting. Serpico felt the pressures that came with challenging a way of life very deeply, but ultimately he was able to inspire action through reform and undeniably improve the law enforcement system around the country.
Johnson, R. A. (2006). Whistleblowing and the police. Rutgers JL & Urb. Pol'y, 3, 74.
Maas, P. (2005). Serpico. New York: Perennial.
Punch, M., & Gilmour, S. (2010). Police corruption: apples, barrels and orchards: Maurice Punch investigates police and organisational deviance, followed by a response from Stan