Frank Serpico, one of the most well-known law enforcement whistleblowers, is urging that to make recent police reform efforts count, police whistleblowers need to be protected.
In an Op-Ed published in The Hill, Serpico provides insights into the treatment of police whistleblowers—and he has a wealth of personal experience to back his claims up. In the late 1960s and 70s, Serpico blew the whistle on corruption in the NYPD and gave the public an insider’s look into the police department. As an officer, Serpico witnessed bribery, a severe lack of accountability for corruption, and what he dubs the “Blue Wall of Silence” or “the unwritten code that values protection of fellow officers, sometimes even over protection of the public.” His role as a whistleblower made him vulnerable, and in 1971 he was shot in the face during a drug bust. His fellow officers left him for dead, and a neighbor was the one who called for medical help.
Serpico’s treatment as a law enforcement whistleblower inspired change within the department and sparked a pop culture response. His whistleblowing gave way to the Knapp Commission formation, a group formed to investigate corruption in the NYPD that came forward with their findings in 1972. Serpico also inspired a feature-length film released in 1973. Serpico, in which Al Pacino played the titular role, has earned a spot on both the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains” list as an iconic hero film and the “100 Years…100 Cheers” list of inspiring movies.
Serpico’s article in The Hill is a testament to the hardships whistleblowers can face in pursuit of justice and truth. Still, his writing also serves as a powerful reminder of the difference whistleblowers can make—if the environment lets them. He reminds the public that the momentum to better control police power will not lead to meaningful changes unless police whistleblowers can feel safe reporting wrongdoing. “If Congress is serious about these reforms, politicians must support and protect those whose testimony is indispensable for their reforms to have a viable chance of taking root. It is not realistic to expect police officers to defend the public if they cannot defend themselves.”