Frank Serpico was definitely a smart, dynamic, and ambitious police officer, if everything in this book is true. History treats him as a martyred hero, with all the praise for risking his life and being brave enough to do what others didn’t. However, I find some holes in the story, with regard to how much he really accomplished. Despite being a working class Italian cop from Brooklyn, he doesn’t come off as street smart. Throughout the book he seems to go out of his way not to be trusted by his peers, and that’s not a way to accomplish anything. He cultivates the most bizarre image and persona, hiding behind a beard and funny clothes, constantly trying to reinvent himself. It’s one thing to adopt the look of a shabby hippy in order to go undercover, but Serpico wanted to be a hippy and a cop at the same time. He does things that undermine his credibility, and complains constantly instead of taking care of things himself. After reading this book, I have to wonder if Serpico is really worthy of all the praise that he received.
For some reason it took Serpico a decade to become a detective, despite having a college degree, multiple languages, a great arrest record, and top marksmanship skills. He was accused of being a peeping tom, which may or may not have been true, but even without an accusation like that, he comes off as a troublemaker. He’s always complaining about the other cops, but never makes any effort to improve things for his fellow officers. There’s a part where he finds all the night shift officers camping out in a basement (known as “cooping”) so he goes out on patrol by himself. That’s good, he takes the initiative and makes an arrest. But he could have tried to convince one of them to go along with him. He takes issue with the corruption in the plainclothes division, but he could have asked to be reassigned to uniform. Not the best way to become a detective, I agree, but he could still have accomplished great things. It was a waste for him to stay in a division for which he had nothing but disdain.
More outrageous and bizarre incidents follow. He shoots a fleeing suspect in the back (without knowing if he’s armed or not) then patrols his own neighborhood (a big no-no) while disguised as an old man and carrying a sword cane (not allowed.) His superiors aren’t happy, and no wonder, because he’s violating the rules to arrest a mugger (and the charges would probably be dropped anyway.) He spends half his time complaining about corrupt cops, but what does he expect? These cops were paid crap, the bookies never got sent to prison, so why would the vice cops make any effort? It’s no wonder the cops were all taking payoffs from numbers runners, pimps, drug dealers, and professional burglars. It wasn’t cops like Serpico that destroyed the numbers racket, but the legalization of the New York Lotto.
History credits Frank Serpico with exposing police corruption, and that’s how we’ll all remember him. Whenever we hear the name, we’ll think of the Knapp Commission, and the lone honest cop versus the dirty pigs, and all of his hippy heroics. However, a lot of what he’s credited with was done by another cop named David Durk, and that’s where things get weird. Durk was older than Serpico, had fewer years on the force, but somehow got promoted faster. The two of them were certainly an “odd couple” in every sense of the word; Durk was the tall blonde Jewish guy, and Serpico was the scruffy little Italian-American hippy. A lot of readers, not just myself, think that the media focused on Serpico exactly because of that – he was an Italian – and they needed him to the be the big hero! The Valacci Papers and The Godfather had hit the bookstores, furthering the stereotype Italian-American criminal, and in Officer Serpico the media found a more positive role-model. As for Durk, who risked his career to expose corruption, he’s only a footnote in this book. Even the movie skips him over, turning him into a waspy character named “Blaire.”
After the events of this book, things didn’t go well for Serpico. He got shot in the face and it left him partially deaf, then he left the force and lived in Europe for a while, came back to the USA in the early 80’s. In the 1990’s he was in the spotlight again, thanks to the Abner Louima case and the new debate on police brutality, but few really cared about his opinion. As for David Durk, he got promoted to Lieutenant, but the NYPD stuck him in boring jobs he didn’t like, and when he retired he got screwed on his pension. Like Serpico, he left the city for upstate New York, but spent the rest of his life trying to bring attention to police corruption, and his efforts were mostly ignored.
After reading this book, and a few others about this topic, I wonder if Serpico and Durk are some kind of little-and-large comedy act? You have the scruffy little working class Italian American hippy weirdo, and the well-dressed straight-arrow upper-class Jew. When I wonder why both of them ended up with less-than-ideal ends, it dawns on me that they had issues to begin with. Both of them seem deluded and unable to face reality. They both had fantasies of making some radical change to American life, which everyone knows doesn’t happen overnight, and certainly can’t be accomplished by only two men. They would have to have been crazy to do what they did, taking the risk that their fellow cops would mark them as rats.
It was the same crazy attitude that led to their undoing.