At 75, Frank Serpico has come a long way from the days when he exposed rampant corruption in the New York Police Department in the 1960s, got shot in the face during a drug bust and subsequently made famous by Al Pacino’s portrayal in Sidney Lumet’s 1973 classic biopic.
“How many years is it now?” Serpico said, smiling, during a recent interview. “Forty years. I got a bullet in my head, and I’m still here.”
After joining the NYPD in 1959, Serpico refused to become one more officer accepting bribe. Instead, he turned into the most famous cop to break the blue wall of silence.
In early 1970, after having little luck reporting corruption, Serpico went to The New York Times. The exposé forced Mayor John Lindsay to form the Knapp Commission, which documented endemic corruption in the police department and brought sweeping reforms. This October will mark the 40th anniversary of Serpico’s 1971 testimony before the Commission.
Earlier that same year, Serpico was shot in the face. By then there was so much disdain for Serpico in the department that fears immediately arose that he had been shot by one of his fellow officers. It proved untrue; a heroin dealer fired the shot that nearly ended Serpico’s life during a narcotics raid in Brooklyn.
Today, somewhere under a receding hair line, fragments of the bullet and memories from that day are still lodged.
Serene Life Upstate
Where he lives now, Serpico prefers to keep a secret. He will only say it is a one-room cabin he built himself, in upstate New York, about three hours north of New York City. No neighbors in sight.
On a typical day, he usually gets up around 6:30 a.m., meditates by playing Japanese bamboo flute and makes his own meals using only organic food he buys in farmers markets (he wears a magnifying glass around his neck so he can check ingredients).
He keeps in shape by cycling and swing dancing. He is writing a memoir, but doesn’t feel like there’s enough time to work on it.
“I’m too busy living,” he said, with a mischievous smile.
In Hudson, N.Y., where we meet for the interview, he is a familiar face, and many stop him to chat. Dan Seward, owner of John Doe records store on Park Place, has known Serpico for seven years, during which he has occasionally frequented the store. Before they met, he had already heard rumors, which generally seem to precede Serpico.
“I knew some fables about him. Fables with the ladies,” Seward said. “Some of my lady friends were friends of his and had alternately wonderful things and discouraging things to say about Frank. But I guess that’s what makes him him, right?”
Serpico, who had a reputation for being a ladies man, never married. He is currently dating a French schoolteacher.
Putting Life Back Together
This reclusive life is one he gradually settled into. He left the force in 1972. A year later, he left the country.
“I thought I’d get out of this country as fast I can and put my life together,” Serpico said, reflecting on the time following the shooting incident. “I just traveled. I’ve been to Russia, East, Middle East.”
Serpico took a brief respite from traveling when the movie based on his life was being made. He was called to the set and spent some time with Pacino, whom he liked. But soon, Serpico said, he ran into problems.
“Lumet was directing, and I said cut,” he said. “And he said, ‘Pussycat, what are you doing? I’m trying to make a movie over here.’”
He said the argument had ensued over a scene where, in the movie, Serpico’s fellow officer flushes down the toilet a man who was late with a payoff. In real life, Serpico said, that didn’t happen. A sharp exchange between two men developed, he recalled.
“I grabbed my proverbials and said ‘Pussycat this,’” Serpico said. “And I walked out. And that was the last time that I saw him.”
Serpico returned to traveling. He met a Dutch woman, and they settled on a farm with her two children. Years later she died of cancer and in 1981 Serpico returned to the US.
Anger Still Directed at the NYPD
Years, though, have not tamed his anger toward the NYPD. Serpico said he never claimed he was shot in a set-up organized by fellow officers. But that February night, he said, his partners did not back him as he tried to enter the Brooklyn heroin’s dealer apartment.
Serpico said he confronted Patrick V. Murphy, Police Commissioner at the time when he was shot, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice a few years ago.
“I’ve been carrying a bullet in my head for over 35 years, and you, Mr. Murphy, are the man I hold responsible,” Serpico said he told Murphy in front of an audience.
But Serpico’s resentments extend far beyond the night he got shot. He says the Medal of Honor, which he received after the shooting, was not awarded in a proper ceremony; that he is never invited to lecture at the Police Academy or to any other NYPD organized events. At the same time, he points out, other police departments around the country welcome him.
“Conscience of the department”
Eugene O’Donnell, professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former cop, said he thinks Serpico’s resentment is justified, considering the role he played in the department’s history.
“He absolutely was not properly credited for what he did,” O’Donnell said. “He took on a role of a reformer and really a conscience of the department and ended up doing some heavy lifting that should have been done at the top of the department. In the safe distance of 2011 he becomes more of a heroic figure with each passing year.”
Serpico’s complaints turn into outright criticism of the department, which he still sees as embroiled in some of the same problems that existed in his era.
“In my time no, not every policeman was corrupt,” he said. “But those that were corrupt were the ones that ran the show. And that’s the way it works today.”
Experts disagree, giving the NYPD high marks when it comes to corruption. Paul Browne, chief spokesman for the department, said Serpico’s remarks show “ignorance born out of being away for 40 years.”
“We have almost as many people involved in fighting corruption and prosecuting police officers internally … as we have assigned to counter terrorism, about a 1000 people,” Browne said. “Far, far different from when Frank Serpico was a police officer.”
Even though he might sound bitter, Serpico said he has no regrets about the past and feels contented. Still, the idea that he hasn’t been treated fairly seems to result in emotions that continuously percolate just beneath the surface.
“Am I disappointed? Am I angry?” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m angry, but I have a right to be angry. And I have a right to be disappointed.”