Op/Ed Fridays: Serpico on cops today
News of shootings, grand juries, protests, and more involving race, class, and gender are making front-page news like they haven’t in decades.
I try to stick to posting original perspectives and ideas, but sometimes I find something relevant I feel compelled to link to. Frank Serpico, the real-life cop Al Pacino played in the movie Serpico, wrote a piece “The Police Are Still Out of Control, I should know,” I found relevant from someone with a valuable, unique, and credible perspective. He had the integrity to try to reform the corruption in a system he cared about, taking a bullet to the face in the process.
I’ll quote the article’s beginning here, which talks about decades ago, but its poignancy comes from his views on police today.
In the opening scene of the 1973 movie â€œSerpico,â€ I am shot in the faceâ€”or to be more accurate, the character of Frank Serpico, played by Al Pacino, is shot in the face. Even today itâ€™s very difficult for me to watch those scenes, which depict in a very realistic and terrifying way what actually happened to me on Feb. 3, 1971. I had recently been transferred to the Narcotics division of the New York City Police Department, and we were moving in on a drug dealer on the fourth floor of a walk-up tenement in a Hispanic section of Brooklyn. The police officer backing me up instructed me (since I spoke Spanish) to justÂ get the apartment door open â€œand leave the rest to us.â€
One officer was standing to my left on the landing no more than eight feet away, with his gun drawn; the other officer was to my right rear on the stairwell, also with his gun drawn. When the door opened, I pushed my way in and snapped the chain. The suspect slammed the door closed on me, wedging in my head and right shoulder and arm. I couldnâ€™t move, but I aimed my snub-nose Smith & Wesson revolver at the perp (the movie version unfortunately goes a little Hollywood here, and has Pacino struggling and failing to raise a much-larger 9-millimeter automatic). From behind me no help came. At that moment my anger got the better of me. I made the almost fatal mistake of taking my eye off the perp and screaming to the officer on my left: â€œWhat the hell you waiting for? Give me a hand!â€ I turned back to face a gun blast in my face. I had cocked my weapon and fired back at him almost in the same instant, probably as reflex action, striking him. (He was later captured.)
When I regained consciousness, I was on my back in a pool of blood trying to assess the damage from the gunshot wound in my cheek. Was this a case of small entry, big exit, as often happens with bullets? Was the back of my head missing? I heard a voice saying, â€œDonâ€™ worry, you be all right, you be all right,â€ and when I opened my eyes I saw an old Hispanic man looking down at me like Carlos Castanedaâ€™s Don Juan.Â My â€œbackupâ€ was nowhere in sight. They hadnâ€™t even called for assistanceâ€”I never heard the famed â€œCode 1013,â€ meaning â€œOfficer Down.â€ They didnâ€™t call an ambulance either, I later learned; the old man did. One patrol car responded to investigate, and realizing I was a narcotics officer rushed me to a nearby hospital (one of the officers who drove me that night said, â€œIf I knew it was him, I would have left him there to bleed to death,â€ I learned later).
The next time I saw my â€œback-upâ€ officers was when one of them came to the hospital to bring me my watch. I said, â€œWhat the hell am I going to do with a watch? What I needed was a back-up. Where were you?â€ He said, â€œFuck you,â€ and left. Both my â€œback-upsâ€ were later awarded medals for saving my life.
I still donâ€™t know exactly what happened on that day. There was never any real investigation. But years later, Patrick Murphy, who was police commissioner at the time, was giving a speech at one of my alma maters, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and I confronted him. I said, â€œMy name is Frank Serpico, and Iâ€™ve been carrying a bullet in my head for over 35 years, and you, Mr. Murphy, are the man I hold responsible. You were the man who was brought as commissioner to take up the cause that I began â€” rooting out corruption. You could have protected me; instead you put me in harmâ€™s way. What have you got to say?â€ He hung his head, and had no answer.
I recommend reading the rest of the article, “The Police Are Still Out of Control, I should know,” which continues to give his views on the situation today.
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