Would Serpico Want To Defund the Cops?


Crooked, undisciplined cops have been a famous movie theme for decades.  However, movies are often based on reality.  One of the best movies on undisciplined cops is the 1973 movie Serpico, directed by Sydney Lumet, which featured a young Al Pacino as an honest cop in a dishonest and corrupt precinct in the Bronx.

The movie’s background is well known. It was based on a violent, criminal borough in Manhattan that had a tense relationship with drug dealers, pimps, criminals, and the local cops.

A FILM TO REMEMBER: “SERPICO” (1973) - Scott Anthony - MediumIn the movie, Frank Serpico, on his first day as a cop, learns that his fellow officers are sharing money stolen or paid by criminals. Serpico refuses to take his share of the money and reports to a superior.  But Serpico soon learns that his superiors do not want to move against the corruption.

The real Frank Serpico

Since he refuses to take the dirty money, Serpico becomes an outcast and is rejected by his fellows. This affects his personal life. He is harassed and threatened by his fellow cops. In 1971, in a drug bust, Serpico was betrayed and shot in the face.

In real life, the events were heinous enough to spark public outrage. This resulted in the forming of the Knapp Commission to Investigate Alleged Police Corruption. This commission was a five-member panel formed in April 1970 by Mayor John V. Lindsay to investigate corruption within the New York City Police Department.  A recent documentary on this critical NYC history is on the ACLU website.  

In the documentary, the real Serpico considered himself “a lamplighter” who wanted to show that the millions in graft were systemic inside the NYC police department.  Unlike the movie, Serpico worked with corrupt cops for five years, refusing to take the graft money the entire time.  But this situation made the other cops taking the money nervous and suspicious of his motives.  It eventually resulted in Serpico being shot in a drug bust that is still murky about who caused his shooting. He ultimately was so threatened that Switzerland granted him political asylum.

Lessons for Today

Police reform is a top agenda item today. However, the Knapp Commission and Serpico’s experience show that the cop culture is challenging to reform. If anything, since the Serpico police days of the late-1960 and early-1970s, the police have become more militarized, aggressive, and unaccountable.  However, the culture is still hard to reform.

Serpico, the real-life story described in the documentary, has many lessons for people today. History can repeat itself, for better or worse.

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Chuck Epstein has managed marketing communications and public relations departments for major global financial institutions and participated in the launch of industry-changing financial products. He also has written by-lined articles for over 50 publications, five books and served as editor and publisher of nation’s first newsletter on the topic of using the PC for personal investing and trading. (“Investing Online, 1994-1999). He also is a marketing consultant, writer and speaker on topics related to investor protection and opportunities in the very dynamic cannabis industry. He has held senior-level marketing, PR and communications positions at the New York Futures Exchange, Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Lind-Waldock, Zacks Investment Research, Russell Investments and Principal Financial. He has won national awards from the Mutual Fund Education Alliance (MFEA) and his web site, www.mutualfundreform.com, was named best small blog in 2009 by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW).



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