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'm in the boardroom ofan upmarket

NewYorkCiry hotel.I'm

surounded by some very angry cops.

They're also intensely worried. For

good reason. Trvo ofthe officers

present have received€ath threats itl

the past fe" days. One tells me he has been

sickwith worry. Literally. The reason is his

"bro ther of6cers". Hallivay through an

undercoverjob he discovered many oF

themwere corrupt in more rvays than he

could possibly have imagined, and now

he\ blorving the whisde. He's allla*yeredup;hisrvife,

a fellow of6cer, is standing by

his side. His partner6om the d€partment,

also. Butuntiltoday the most important

piece oftheircrusade was missing. A leader.

They all knew exactly who they wanted

to 6llthat role, and thrs afternoon he

arrived. \ghen he st€pped fonvard,rvith

his hand outstretched, their rvonies

evaporated lora beautitul second. His

name is Frank Serpico. And, as oftoday,

he's back in business.

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There was a time rvhen Frank Sepico's lame

eclipsed Elvis Presley s,John \i/ayne's and

MuhammadAlit.

ln the €arly S€venties, amid the mud of

Vi€tnam and Watergate, America found

the hero itlvas looking for:an honest cop

called Serpico. Naturally, I lollrrvood

loved it and when they made the film in

1973 - s tarring Al Pacino - Serpicot name

became dre title, assumi'rg the kind of

famitiarity normally reserved for rock stars,

FrankSerpico had graduated from $e

police academy ur r95o, hopeful and

idealistic. \0ithin days "on the job" he

discovered Iorv-level corruption

every.rvhere: free me:ls from diners;

sleeping on the job; bibes from speeding

drivers, and so on But Serpico stayed

clean. So clean he even carried out arrests

ofFduty. As a result, heivas ostracised.

He fought back, embracing Sixties

counterculture - living like a hippy and

escherving the normal "we atl stick

togethel'police life. And when he realised

the sheer scale ofthe corruption, Serpico

knew he had to tell someone about it.

He follorved the mle bookand

:rpproached his most senior officers. They

ignored him. He thendid the unthinkable,

wentoutside the police department to

the Mayor ofNervYork's assistant - who

alsodid nothing.In a last, desperate

mcasure, Seryico secretly met David

Burnham, a respected reporter from the

Nna )'or| Tim:. On Aprtl21, r97o, headlines

announcing an unprecedented scale of

police corruption made the front page.

Despite beingcalled a "psycho" by the

police commissioner and 6nding a live >


hand-grenade addressed to him under

the precinct Christmas tree, Serpico kept

on working undercover. Despised by other

officers, itwas only a matter of time before

som€thing bad happened. In February

r97, an undercoverBrooklyn drugs bust

wentwrong and his back-up was strangely

reluctant to, well, backhim up. Hewas

shotin the face andleftto die.

He clung to life and survived. After his

release from hospital the Knapp

Commission's inquiry into police

corruption was ortanised, with Serpico the

starattraction. He tave public testimony

about the corruption he'd witnessed and

the problems he'd had tryingto fightit.

Everyone listened. They even clapped.

Then Frank Serpico diappeared.

In the intervening z5 yean, rumoun

abounded as to his fate: I heard he was

living in Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Tibet,

rVales, France and Ireland.

His story seemed to srop dead at the end

ofthatmovie. Noonehad been able to 6ll

in the blanks. Butlwanted to.I spent

months trackinghim down. The Intemet,

old phone books, dead'end callswith

cranks and weirdos. Finally I got lucky and

Ibund his nephew, a no-nonsense

NervYork la*,yer. He agreed to setup a

nreeting. But even as I boarded r plane to

Ncw York I las still in the dark aboutwhen

I rvould meet Detective - Third Crade -

Fnnk Serpico (retired).

I senscd that hcrvasr'tso nuchstcpping

our oi tlre ,h.rdo.*.. ,r. | .v,r ' crrrellg rhcm.

The phce where we've aranged to meetk

a littlc rcstaunut in a little town in Ncw

Iorh 5t,rr, . I ,l been rold I'll know binr rhc

nronrent I see him. "He's mind-blowingly

Lrnusr:rl,"theysaid.

Tbey rvrren'nrrong, either. He's

wearing brown jeans, expensive brown

sports shoes, a lithtSreen, stonewashed

shin and a leather waistcort. African beads

hangaround his neck, as does a dragon'shead

medallion. Thewhole look is topped

offwith a little ivory earringrvhich dangles

from his left ear- it's intricately cawed and

shaped like r penis. He notrce. me lookrng

at it. "ltalian Viagra," he whispen. Then he

cracks up laughinSat his ownjok€.

At6z, he's builtlike a hardcore

endurence athlete and stands about y'9"

with the thick, shoulder-length hairand

greyingbeard of\gillie Nelson. His face is

instantlyengaging, tannedandrveathered;

eyes Iike a kidwhen het smilingpenetratingand

glazed when het angry.

An old hippywith an edge. An edge in the

shape ofthegvv Browning automatic he

never goes anyu,here without.

rlfe eat lunch. He quotes Socrates and

VB Yeats. Ve talk opera, cookery,whisky

Anything it seems, buthim. Finally,we go

forawalk.

Suddenlyitt allover. He announces he

has to leave. Anothermeetint is arranged.

A new location is laboriously chosen.

Then het offl drivinga new, gleaming,

black, four-wheel drive. Grinning wildly.

I'm Ieft alone on a street-corner with a

notebook-fu ll of unanswered questions,

wondering, for all my research, exactly

who the man I've just met reallywas.

Because it sure as hell wasnl Al Pacino.

"The callthatwent in was a callby a

civilian, it was a'Ten-Ten'- investigate

shots 6red.l know the man that called it

in, hewas consoling me while Iwas laying

on the floor. Hewas an old Puerto tucan

and he says:

'Don't worry, youle tonna be

alright.I called police,l called ambulance.'

Two cops responded; one police car.They

lumbered up the stairs and I heard one of

them sey,'l thinkhet a nark."'

Frank Serpico touch€s on the point that

still bothers him: "1neversaid Iwas set up,

buttheyleftme tobleed to deathand never

called a'Ten-Thineen' - omcer down."

Ifthey had, theplacewould have been

swarmingwith patrol cars in minutes.

Instead theyjust r€ported a "Ten-Ten",

merely means "lnvestigate shots 6red".

The two copswho didn'tcharSe the door

when the pinned-down Serpico had

pleadedwith them to do so, andwho

subsequently didn't send out that alf

inportant radio-alert, rvcre called to give

evidence befbre a police board. Both

were giveD Decorations ol lrxceptional

Merit by the NYPD fortheir part in

"saving" Serpico's life.

Serpico stares out the windowand

shakes his head.It's a few days afterour

6rst meeting. We're drivingthe.Too miles

down to NewYorkCity.

In the inteflening days I've been to

watch him play in an African drumming

group,I've been shoppingrvith him and

we've eaten in various restauraDts togetLer.

Sometimes he'lltalk rvith great

enthusialm; other times,like now, he'll

introduce a britde edge to our

conversations. At one point I was appalled

to find myselfthreatening to throwhi,n

outofthe car;fhe didn'tstop being rude

to me. He muttered sonrethinSabout me

"having no sense ofhumour".

The day b€fore this trip to NewYork,

he'd invited me backto his secluded cabin

in the rvoods. He seemed vulnerable and

nervous showing me around, giving me

the clear impression that he rarely invited

strangers home. He shorved me h's fullsize,

Nativ€ American tepee, his Buddha

statues on upturned tree-tops and his

sculptures. A private place forhealing and

'You

don'l

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G100lr

wncnyou

[ecomea

Gop. Tnese

glly$wGle

allcadu

dishonGsl'

reflection. A place normally well offJimits

to outsiders. I was gratefulfor his trust.

t:sk him why he vannhed for so long.

"The storyof the butterfly, you know.

I went into my cocoon. I went away because

I wanted peace and qr.:iet.I was healing

myself physically and psychologically."

Heeventually had to retum to the

States to fighta paternitysuit. He has an

r8-year-old son, the resultofa relationship

that flourished around the time that the

hitmovie abouthis life was made. He

s€ems bitter about that particular court

battle and onlysees hi son "once in a

while". He continues, "Hellike his

mother. AIlhe thinks about is material

stufl He changes his name to Serpico

when it\ convenient for him."

I askhim ifhe everenjoyed being

apollceman,

"Sure,"he "l says. loved the work

because itwas h elping people. It was an

honourable profession, at lsst the kind of

cop that I wanted to bewas..- To be out

th€re helping people in need is a public

service. And anybody that doesn'twant to

be a civilservant shouldn\take this job.

Too many people take thejob because

they think they\e going to make money

with corruption.''

Qrietness falls benveen us again. He

likes the silences. !0e drive quietlythrough

the outskirts of the city of New York.

Is he in touchwith the situation

inside the current New York City

Police Departmentl He bristles at the

phrase "in touch".

"You sound jurt Jike thoseAmerican

journalistswho have lriends toprotect and

want to pretend I'm out oftouch. Horv can

anybody be outoftouch rvith the police

department? I know what I went through

z5 years ago... [Now] I get letters from all

overthe country from copsrvho are sick

and tired ofcorruption, and theyrvant to

do something about it. The honest cop is

tired ofbeingabused by the system."

I'm discoverins het neverreally been

away. Het ahvays been around to quietly

help othercops who needed his suppon

and guidance. However,rvhen he testified

before a City Council comn]ittee on the

need fora nerv independent board to

monitorpolice wrongdoing the year

before, he'd chosen:r prescient t;me to

emerge fiom apparent obscurig. The city

was reeling from allegations involving the

alleged assault by fourofiicers on a Haitian

immigrant nanred AbnerLouima who

clainred the cops had rammed a nightstick

into his rectum. And anotherscandal

involving the NYPD rvas also hitting the

headlines: for ryyears, zo hishrankins >

202 |

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IATA

> of6cers from the Midtown Southprecinct had allegedly been usingthe

services ofcity-centre prostitutes - mostofthe trysts tookplace during on-duty

hours. kwas an eerily familiar scenario foranyone versed in Serpico's story.

)Thydoyou thinkthe policewere (and stillare) on the take?

He thinks fora fewseconds. "Because there {werel criminal elements from

societywho become poiicemen. You don't become a crookwhen you become

a cop. These guys already had the notion ofbeing dishonest.Ifyou don'thave

the courage to say'no' to the temptation ofcommittinga crime, rvhat

difference does it make ifyou have a uniform on ornot?"

We park in downtown Manhattan and bolt through the dorvnpourinto that

well-known hotel, to that secret boardroom meetingbeween FrankSerpico

and detectives. For legal reasons, I cannotfelate in detailwhat is specifically

discussed during this meeting, exceptto say that it concerns a theme the Buest

ofhonour is all too fanriliar with: poiice corruption on a staggering scale. The

olficers I meet today arr the ones who refi:sed to go along*ith it. One tells me

grimlv: "The investigation encompassed narcotics trafGcking, embezzlement,

witncx tampering, evidence tampering, money laundering... There were

ollicers involved thatrve bad evidence against."

I'm shown a photo ofone of their colleagues his hands fullofcash and

flesh - in LasVegas, posingwith a local madam. The guywas the head oftheir

departmenCs vice squad.

One ofthe lawyers presentat the meetingsays the conr.rptpolice officers are

'S

stillsent out on duty on a daily basis rvith these whistie-biowers. o that

doesn'tgive you a realsense ofsecurity knowing that those are the people you

may counton to save yourlife in a situation," he explains.

Serpico listens, commentingthat it all sounds "very familiar feelingalone,

feelingvr:lnerable, feelingthat thes€ men [corrupt of6cers] are Iooking atyou

with distrust... And, psychologically I mean, rvhat happened to me tookme a

number ofyears to getov€i'.

The meeting Fnally breala up. The cops pose forphotographs with

theirhero,like kids meeting a footballstar. One ofthem even produces an

"l'm

ancient, battered 6rst'edition ofthe book, Sarprro. beingpromoted to

det€ctive tomonow," he tells Serpicoproudly. Then theyshake hands

and Serpico leaves.

Ten minutes laterl'm standing with him on thc stre€toutsid€ the hotel. Hc

has another appointment in thc city this timc with his family. We embrace

and sav a hunied farewell.

I stand stilland watch him rvalkoft tracking hn fbrm for a fervseconds

among the crorvds. Then, quite suddenly, I realise I can't seem to see him any

more. In an instant, Frank Serpico has become unrecognisable in the throng

just anothersbape in the hurrying hordes. Er

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