Serpico: I Almost Died for Exposing Police Corruption - Cops Lack Legitimacy and They Must Gain it Back
The following article first appeared in the Nation.
In 1971, shortly after exposing widespread, even systemic corruption amounting to millions of dollars in bribes and illegitimate relationships between the New York Police Department and criminals citywide, I was shot point-blank by a dealer during a buy-and-bust drug operation. My backup team failed to call 911, but an elderly Latino tenant did, saving my life. I was awarded the Medal of Honor by the NYPD—not for exposing corruption, but for being shot while engaging a drug dealer.
To this day, many officers believe I gave the department a black eye. I’ve been vilified for speaking out about corruption and the excessive use of force, for holding my colleagues accountable and for reminding them of their mission: first and foremost, to protect and serve the community.
Decades later, more and more citizens across the country are losing faith in our justice system, with brazen acts of police brutality frequently captured on cellphone videos; the militarization of police forces through the acquisition of war-machine surplus; continuing racial tensions coupled with a lack of initiative for community policing; and the sentencing of minor offenders to long terms in for-profit prisons, where they essentially become indentured servants.
Over the past month, police officers from around the country assembled in New York City to mourn the loss of two of their brothers in blue, who had been slain by a disturbed gunman. Relations between the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio fell to a new low after many officers at the memorials—spurred by incendiary rhetoric from Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association—turned their backs on the mayor as he spoke. Such puerile behavior constitutes conduct unbecoming an officer and insubordination, and it should be disciplined as such.
Every police agency needs leadership, and that leadership needs to be followed. But grievances should be resolved at the proper time and place. There are thousands of competent men and women in the NYPD. With the removal of politics and nepotism, a union can elect as its leader someone who is capable, articulate and informed—a person who understands the inner core of the department’s concerns and grievances, but who can also connect with and understand the demands of the community.
The NYPD and police departments across the nation must revisit their mission to protect and serve; they must also implement this mission with a revised set of policing principles in consideration of our evolving communities. This should be coupled with the empowerment of the disenfranchised throughout the justice system, to ensure fair and equal treatment under the law. Police must be taught that the power entrusted to them is not theirs to use or abuse as they see fit.
Here are some general considerations on how to re-establish the legitimacy of the policing profession and renew the respect between officers and the community:
§â€ˆCommunity engagement. Police departments should have a policy of hiring from the communities they serve so that the racial and ethnic makeup of departments reflects those communities. Understanding and trust within the community start with its individual members. In order to engender that trust, officers should reach out to the public. This acts as a preventive measure, not only helping officers to fight crime with tips from residents who know them by name, but also precluding misunderstandings due to unfamiliarity with the people who live on their beat. The old police adage still holds true: “Good police work should be 10 percent perspiration and 90 percent information.” If the police have the respect of the public, then the public will be there for them. It certainly was for me, on more than one occasion.
You rebuild a sense of community with communication, service and respect, not intimidation, arrogance and fear. If a good police officer doesn’t want to be unfairly categorized because of the unprofessional behavior of a fellow officer, then it behooves him or her to speak out and not be a party to it. Your fellow officer’s behavior, good or bad, is a reflection on the entire force. Above all, it is the responsibility of the police brass, the commissioner and the mayor to see to it that officers who speak up are held in high regard and rewarded for their good example—not punished for it, as is usually the case.
§â€ˆForce. Police should anticipate using force only in situations they know may be dangerous. Training in the use of deadly force must be adequate and continuous. A police officer should feel confident, not fearful, because fear causes the imagination to play tricks. If you think “gun,” you may see a gun where one doesn’t exist, with deadly consequences for an innocent person. The expressions “It’s better to be tried by twelve than carried by six” and “Shoot first, ask questions later” are not an intelligent guide to the use of deadly force.
The overzealous deployment of weapons when responding to minor community disruptions will result in often justified accusations of murder against police officers. Officers need more training on how to deal with citizens who are handicapped. Certainly they should not be subject to physical abuse, and mentally ill people displaying nonviolent yet disturbing behavior (such as loud, incoherent or even abusive speech) should be handled with calmness and compassion, in consideration of their fragile mental state. Police officers bolster their reputation for authority when they refrain from overreaction in such situations. The issue of mental health deserves as much attention as the mass production and sale of weapons—and if we ignore the correlation between these two problems, we’ll have more tragedies like the murder of the two NYPD officers and the Newtown school massacre.
Policing is a dangerous profession, but a lack of professionalism is a danger to the public. Strict hiring standards are essential, with special attention paid to emotional and psychological stability to ensure that candidate officers are able to handle the power entrusted to them. The words “civil service” must have meaning and be adhered to by police.
§â€ˆTransparency and accountability. Through the use of modern technology, our justice system can re-establish itself as open, inclusive and accountable. All officers should wear cameras while on patrol. This will ensure that they follow protocol and will foster a mindset of accountability to the community. All interrogations and confessions should also be recorded. With secure, web-based recording software and inexpensive USB cameras, protocols after arrest can be standardized without large cost outlays. Open, web-based discussion boards should be established and monitored by district attorneys, with areas for the anonymous reporting of police corruption and follow-up responses. The adoption of these technologies will not be costly, especially when compared with the cost of paid leave for officers relieved of their duties, the endless filing of paperwork by officers who should be on the beat, and the millions of dollars spent settling wrongful-death lawsuits.
§â€ˆAmnesty. The “war on drugs” is not working. In fact, it’s really a war on the disenfranchised. Recreational marijuana use should be legalized nationwide, and all nonviolent drug offenders should be released from prison. Small-time dealers should no longer be penalized. Marijuana arrests should not be a make-work program for corporate prisons, where people of color are grossly overrepresented for such offenses, engendering recidivism and mistrust of the system. Enforcement of marijuana laws drains police resources that would be far better spent investigating serious crimes. It’s no secret that this generally benign plant was criminalized as a means of control. It is time for this to end.
At New York City Council hearings in 1997, I urged the city to create an agency that would monitor police misconduct and to encourage “an atmosphere where the crooked cop fears the honest cop, and not the other way around.” That advice echoed the sentiments I expressed before the Knapp Commission in the early 1970s, as well as testimony by others at the Mollen Commission hearings in 1994. It is now 2015—four decades after the Knapp Commission—and countless innocent lives have been wasted. This is a new era; the people are tired of waiting. This rift between the police and the public can and must be mended.
Police officials and politicians know there’s work to be done. I hope these suggestions begin to open up the conversation. We can continue down the path of contention, corruption and community destruction, or we can choose inclusion, a code of conduct, transparency and the rebuilding of our social structure. I hope we make the latter choice. Together, we can learn to respect, support and honor each other as a community.
I want to make it clear that this is not an attempt to attack or demean the police profession—which I admire and respect and have devoted my life’s work to. Rather, it is a warning to a culture within some departments that I believe is partly to blame for the current crisis. We need the police, and the police need us.