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Serpico resurrects his decades-old criticism of NYPD

Frank Serpico

In this story:

September 23, 1997
Web posted at: 8:25 p.m. EDT (2025 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Frank Serpico, the former New York City cop who became a symbol for police honesty, lashed out at society's leaders Tuesday, saying "We need good role models, and they have to start at the top."

Twenty-six years after testifying at hearings on police corruption in New York City, the 61-year-old Serpico told a city council hearing on police misconduct that much of the problem lay with America's leaders.

In a 15-minute statement, Serpico cited examples of what he considers poor behavior by those leaders -- from President Clinton's refusal to take his suggestion that he reward an honest police officer, to an incident in which New York Police Commisioner Howard Safir ate in a restaurant that is off-limits to officers because of its alleged links to organized crime.

Tanned and lean, wearing a white beard and his long gray hair tied neatly in a ponytail, Serpico said after each example, "What kind of a message does this send out to the honest cop?"

The City Council is considering legislation to establish an independent commission to monitor police conduct in the wake of the August 9 beating and sexual torture accusations leveled by Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.

Abner Louima

Also appearing at the hearing was Milton Mollen, whose 1993 commission linked police corruption to brutality and warned that the NYPD's internal affairs division had broken down.

$27 million paid in brutality cases

Mollen made the point again Tuesday.

"What we did find shocking was a total ineptitude of police fighting corruption," he said. "They are superb in fighting crime -- except among themselves."

The city has paid $27 million to settle civil claims against the police in recent years. And yet when the city council passed a resolution for an independent police monitor, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani successfully challenged the reform in court.

The irony of Serpico's appearance was lost on no one.

A police officer for 15 years, Serpico repeatedly turned down payoffs and turned in corrupt fellow officers. Labeled a "rat" by colleagues, he was shot in a drug raid in 1971 that he says was set up by corrupt officers.

Frank Serpico in 1971

He testified in 1971 at hearings held by the Knapp Commission to investigate charges of corruption in the NYPD. He later quit the force and became a celebrity with the publication of his autobiography in 1973 and the release of a film based on the book, starring Al Pacino.

Financially secure, Serpico lived in Europe until 1980, but now dabbles in art and divides his time between a country cabin and a Brooklyn apartment.

He identified himself at the hearing Tuesday as "Citizen Serpico."

The 'blue wall of silence'

Critics of Giuliani and his aggressive, crime-fighting strategy say the attack on Louima took place in an atmosphere in which abuses by police officers are increasing and punishment of officers is rare.

Investigators believe that more officers have information about the Louima incident, but none have come forward. Serpico urged the council to pierce the "blue wall of silence" by rewarding honest officers.

"I said this to the Knapp Commission over 25 years ago," Serpico said. "We must create an atmosphere where the crooked cop fears the honest cop, and not the other way around."

Correspondent Peg Tyre and Reuters contributed to this report.

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