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Serpico ()

    The problem is not so much that there are a lot of corrupt people, but rather that there are so many
    that the honest are scared of the corrupt.
        -Frank Serpico

AMC has been showing the Godfather movies lately, and like any red-blooded male, I watch at least a part of them every time they are on.  The films are undeniably great, the culture they portray fascinating, but they raise a really curious question : how did the ethos of organized crime become an accepted part of the broader American culture ?  It is obviously beneficial to the participants in a criminal conspiracy to maintain a code of silence and to reserve their most vicious levels of opprobrium and contempt for whistleblowers, but why would the rest of us, who are presumably not generally involved in illicit activity, adopt this attitude too ?

Mind you now, I'm not suggesting making a hero out of John Dean, or someone truly craven like that, someone who's actively involved in the crimes, but turns coat when they get caught; them we should accept information from and, if necessary, reward with reduced sentences, but certainly not glamorize.  On the other hand, to take just a couple of particularly well-known and controversial examples, why are Whittaker Chambers and Linda Tripp not national heroes ?  Each of them exposed clandestine criminal activities which reached right to the very core of American government.  Neither sought personal gain.  Each took a considerable risk, both to their livelihoods and even to their own personal safety.  The matters about which they testified, though vigorously denied by the accused at the outset, were subsequently proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.  And how were they rewarded ?  It is difficult to think of two American citizens, who were not convicted of some kind of heinous crimes, who have been more vilified than these two.

It's possible to identify several reasons that the practice of informing on others is so frowned upon in general.  The most infamous informant of all time is, of course, Judas Iscariot.  Basically, the first great act of whistle blowing in history got the Messiah crucified, not an auspicious debut.  Then there are the two great immigrant groups of the late 19th and early 20th Century : the Irish and the Italians.  The Irish, many of them fleeing from British oppression, brought with them a certain generosity of feeling for, if not outright support of, the Irish Republican Army.  One need look no further than Liam O'Flaherty's great novel The Informer, or the equally good film version by John Ford--to see how poorly such folk took to the idea of co-operating with law enforcement authorities.  Though others might take a less charitable view of the IRA, for those who consider them freedom fighters this is an understandable attitude.  Meanwhile, many Italians brought with them ingrained notions of Omerta, or "the code of silence."  The Godfather films suggest that the Mafia offered poor citizens a form of justice that they could not extract from a corrupt officialdom.  Again, this point's debatable, but it helps explain why informing was not popular among even the honest members of this culture.  So you've got two sizable segments of the population that are predisposed to be hostile towards informants.

Meanwhile, since whistle blowing is most frequently directed against powerful institutions, we'd expect the countercultural Left to be supportive of informants.  But the Chambers and Tripp cases illustrate why this has not been the case.  For in these two most important instances the conspiracies exposed were actually conspiracies of the Left.  When Chambers revealed that he and Alger Hiss had been members of an espionage cell, run by the Soviet Union, it seemed to confirm the worst allegations from the Right that the New Deal was riddled with Communists and Fellow Travelers.  It was therefore necessary to demonize Chambers, which they proceeded to do rather effectively, to the point where it is only within the last few years that it has become possible to talk admiringly of Chambers or to acknowledge the legitimacy of his accusations.  Similarly, when Linda Tripp revealed that a Democratic President of the United States was trying to suborn perjury and obstruct justice the full fury of the organized Left and their allies in the media was turned upon her.  By the end of the Impeachment process, Ms Tripp was more reviled than any of the criminals whose actions she exposed.

There are though a few, very rare, exceptions to this general prejudice, a couple of whistleblowers who have even been given glowing big screen treatment of their heroic stories.  Most recently there was Jeffrey Wigand, lionized in Michael Mann's The Insider for taking on the tobacco industry.  And several years ago there was Silkwood, in which the heroine revealed the misdeeds of the nuclear power industry.  (You'll have noted that the difference in how these individuals were treated seems to be directly related to the animus that intellectuals hold toward their employers, right ?)  But over the course of the past thirty-plus years, one author has produced a series of unusually good portraits of both informants and whistleblowers : Peter Maas.

In his first book, The Valachi Papers, and one of his more recent, Underboss, he has dealt with two of the most significant Mob informants : Joe Valachi and Sammy "The Bull" Gravano.  These books concern men who were implicated in the very criminal activity that they exposed, so though their stories are interesting, they are not heroes.  But in Serpico and in the unjustly little known Marie, Maas has given compelling portraits of honest, decent people who refused to participate in criminal activities and then had the remarkable courage to reveal the existence of the conspiracies that almost all of those around them were involved in.

Frank Serpico graduated from the New York City Police Academy on March 5, 1960 and was assigned to Brooklyn's 81st Precinct.  There he witnessed the low level acts of bribery and corruption which he would see as he moved from precinct to precinct.  Serpico's refusal to participate in such activities, as well as his hippie life-style, made his fellow policemen suspicious of him, but he took no official action against them.  But when he was finally handed an envelope containing $300, while working Brooklyn's 90th Precinct, he approached David Durk, an officer assigned to the mayor's office to ask what he should do about it.  Durk put him in touch with the Department of Investigation where the Captain in charge merely told him to report it to his sergeant, who just pocketed the money and took no further action.

When, several months later, Serpico was transferred to the Bronx he was partnered with Carmello (Gil) Zumatto, who was one of the precinct bagmen and would take Serpico with him on his round of collections.  Durk now took Serpico to see Jay Kriegel, an aide to Mayor John V. Lindsey, but later had to tell him that the Mayor was not interested.  After years of trying to tell his story within the department and getting little or no reaction, Serpico finally met with another of Durk's contact, David Burnham of The New York Times.  On April 25, 1970, the Times ran a story detailing some of Serpico's charges and suggesting that graft paid to police officers in New York City ran into the millions of dollars.  The proverbial stuff hit the fan.

In the storm of publicity that this unleashed, arrests were finally made and some convictions secured and the Knapp Commission was created to look into the problem of corruption in the New York City Police Department.  But at the same time, many of the same men in the Department and in the Mayor's office, to whom Serpico had brought his allegations, and who had done nothing about them, were being promoted to positions of greater responsibility.  In October 1971, Serpico testified before the Commission that :

    The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which an honest police officer can act
    without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers.

    We create an atmosphere in which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer, and not the other
    way around.

He knew whereof he spoke, because in February of that year, during a drug raid. he was shot in the face while pinned in the doorway of an apartment.  It has always been his contention that his fellow officers were slow to come to his assistance and that no one called in an "Officer Down".  Instead, one of the residents of the building called in the shooting.  Serpico spent the next year on sick leave, wondering whether he could continue to do his job.  As Maas relates it, he decisive moment came : the spring of 1972, when the Police Department announced that he would be given its highest
    award, the Medal of Honor--not for his courage in reporting corruption, but because, as he put it,
    he 'was stupid enough to have been shot in the face.'

Thoroughly disillusioned, and by now justifiably fearful for his life, Serpico quit the force.

Though Frank Serpico paid a terrible price for his honesty, this book and the Sidney Lumet movie based on it did portray him as a hero, which he undeniably is.  But Serpico was fortunate in that the target of his revelations was a Police Department, an organization which it was then and is now politically correct to distrust.  But as is so often the case, the exception draws our attention to the rule : what kind of society is this, in which we tend to vilify people who reveal such endemic corruption, while we make martyrs out of the malefactors whose deeds they expose (Alger Hiss, the Hollywood Ten, Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton) ?

There comes a key moment when Serpico arrests a mobster named Rudolph Santobello and takes him to the precinct house where he frisks him quite roughly and shoves him into a detention cell with several addicts.  The other detectives protest this treatment, one of them saying :

    Hey, take it easy.  Rudy's a friend of some of the boys.

Later, at the Bureau of Criminal Identification, where he's taken Santobello to be fingerprinted, Serpico looks up his record.  Furious, he calls the detective who had admonished him and informs him that their "friend" is a convicted cop killer :

    There was silence on the other end of the line for a moment.  'well, gee,' came the injured, ox-like
    reply, 'how were we supposed to know?'

This calls to mind the scene in The Godfather II where Senator Geary (G. D. Spradlin) is shaking down Michael Corleone for a casino license and expresses immense distaste for "you people", to which Michael responds :

    Senator, we're both part of the same hypocrisy...

This is the danger, that when we accept the values of the criminal class, we lower ourselves to their level.   A society that does not defend and honor the people who come forward--almost always to their own personal and professional detriment--and expose criminality, will find that fewer and fewer people are willing to take such risks.  Then we will turn to each other and ask how it came to pass that a President was consorting with drug dealers and fugitive financiers, and somewhere in our collective soul we will know the answer : because either the honest have become scared of the corrupt or because we have all become part of the same hypocrisy�


Grade: (A)


See also:

True Crime
Peter Maas Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Peter Maas
    -ESSAY: Serpico at 50: a daring look at police corruption anchored by Al Pacino: The rough-around-the-edges docudrama of cops misusing their power seems even more provocative today (Scott Tobias, 5 Dec 2023, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:

-VIDEO INTERVIEW: The Detective Who Exposed the Corruption of the NYPD (C-SPAN 1996): An hour long program about David Durk and his work with colleague Frank Serpico.
    -ESSAY: WHY 1973 WAS THE YEAR SIDNEY LUMET TOOK ON POLICE CORRUPTION: In one year, Lumet made two films about police abuse. So how come we only seem to remember 'Serpico'? (ANDREW NETTE, 3/23/23, CrimeReads)

Here are some recommendations for an Informants Film Festival :
    -The Informer (1935)
    -On the Waterfront (1952)
    -Valachi Papers (1972)
    -Serpico (1973)
    -Prince of the City (1981)
    -Marie (1985)
    -The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
    -The Insider (1999)

And there's an excellent book by Robert Daley (who wrote Prince of the City) about his year as a Deputy Commissioner in the NYPD in the aftermath of the Serpico revelations :
    -Target Blue : An Insider's View of the N.Y.P.D. (Robert. Daley)

    -AUTHOR SITE : Peter Maas Books
    -OBIT : Best-selling author Peter Maas dies (Larry McShane, Aug. 23, 2001 | NEW YORK (AP) )
    -OBIT : Peter Maas, author of 'Serpico', dies at 72  (Reuters News Service)
    -OBIT : Peter Maas : Mixing fact and fiction to tell the stories of Joe Valachi and Serpico (Tony Thompson, August 25, 2001, The Guardian)
    -BOOKNOTES : Author: Peter Maas Title: Underboss: Sammy `The Bull' Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia Air Date: August 24, 1997 (C-SPAN)
    -REVIEW : of Underboss by Peter Maas (Donald Westlake, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Underboss (Albert Mobilio, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Underboss (YVONNE CRITTENDEN, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrible Hours by Peter Maas (James Hamilton-Paterson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrible Hours by Peter Maas (Craig Offman, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of  LOVE THY NEIGHBOR: A STORY OF WAR by Peter Maas (BRUCE GRANT -- Edmonton Sun)

    -Frank Serpico Website
    -ESSAY : Why Safir Must Resign (Frank Serpico, March 28th, 2000, Village Voice)
    -INTERVIEW :  Amadou's Ghost : Diallo Speaks to Serpico (Frank Serpico, March 2000, Village Voice)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : FRANK SERPICO ON POLICE CORRUPTION (Democracy Now!, February 18, 2000, Pacifica Radio)
    -Chat transcript for Frank Serpico (WBUR, June 2000)
    -PROFILE : Frank Serpico : the Fate that Gnaws at Him (Kathleen Phalen, Gadfly)
    -ESSAY : The Return of Frank Serpico : Howard Safir Should Resign,' Says Serpico (Nat Hentoff, June 16th, 1998, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY :  Cops in Danger from Other Cops :  Serpico: 'Nothing Has Changed' (Nat Hentoff, November 1999, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY : Serpico gets the last laugh (Gang Land Column By Jerry Capeci, The New York Daily News, January 10, 1995)
    -ESSAY :  Virtual reality dismal for do-gooders (Charles Memminger, Honolulu Star Bulletin, September 29, 1997)
    -ARTICLE : New York Civil Liberties Union has beefed up their new Task Force with the addition of former police whistleblower Frank Serpico to their ranks (ACLU News, January 1999)
    -ARTICLE : Magazine arranges for Ottawa mayor to meet hero : 21-year-old says he admires Frank Serpico's determination. (GENE SMITH, September, 1998, Topeka Capital-Journal)
    -ARTICLE : Serpico resurrects his decades-old criticism of NYPD (CNN, September 1997)
    -ARTICLE : One Good Cop : Serpico's back, and he's fighting corruption again (The Associated Press, September 20, 1997)
    -ARTICLE : Whistle-Blower Still Sees System in Need of Repair  (Vince Winkel, November 27, 1995, The Christian Science Monitor)
    -ARTICLE : Serpico speaks to students  (PETER HUSTON, May 2000, Recorder News)
    -REVIEW : of CRUSADE The Hell-Raising Police Career of Detective David Durk By James Lardner (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of CRUSADE The Hell-Raising Police Career of Detective David Durk By James Lardner (Craig Wolff, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of NYPD A City and Its Police. By James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto (Jeffrey Goldberg, NY Times Book Review)

    -FILMOGRAPHY : Peter Maas
    -INFO : Serpico (1973) (
    -BUY IT : Serpico VHS (
    -INFO : Serpico (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -REVIEW : of Serpico (Damian Cannon)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: “IT JUST GETS DIRTIER!”: On Sidney Lumet’s un-crooked cop drama. (CHRISTIAN LORENTZEN, 7/20/23, Metrograph)
    -FILM REVIEW: Serpico (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)

    -Whistleblowing Pathfinder (Tracy Holtman)
    -Suppression of dissent (Brian Martin)
    -Official New York City Police Department Web Site
    -ESSAY : Rogue Cops and Bad Lieutenants (Jesse Berrett, August 2001, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY : Giuliani Owes NYPD an Apology : A Cop: 'People Are Tired of Being Harassed' (Nat Hentoff, July 2000, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY : Policing Their Own : What the NYPD Did Not Reveal About Former Chief Louis Anemone (Peter Noel, April 2000, Village Voice)
    -ESSAY : BAD COP, GOOD COPS  (The Editors, The New Republic, September 8, 1997)
    -ESSAY : Betrayed by the FBI: Informants who've risked their lives revealing terrorist plots, mob hits and Soviet espionage find themselves hung out to dry. (Jeff Stein, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of NYPD : A City and Its Police by James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto (Andrew O'Hehir, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York by Vincent J. Cannato  (Alvin S. Felzenberg, Weekly Standard)
    -David Burnham (EPIC)
    -ESSAY : The Inhumanity of Government Bureaucracies. (Hans Sherrer, 09/01/00, Independent Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Godfather (Dick Schaap, April 27, 1969, NY Times Book Review)