Frank Serpico, the retired New York Police Department (NYPD) detective best known for testifying against police corruption in 1971, addressed Fordham executive MBA students on Nov. 5.
It was a rare appearance for Serpico, a resident of Columbia County in upstate New York, who only leaves his cabin on occasion to lecture at colleges and universities on police brutality and corruption.
“Ethics cannot be taught,” he said. “It can only be shown by example, preferably at an early age before the damage is done.”
Serpico, whose crusade against widespread corruption in the NYPD made him a pariah on the force, discussed how fellow officers left him to bleed to death after he was shot during a drug bust.
“If you show the public you are trustworthy, they’ll be there for you when you need them. A crooked cop won’t,” he said.
Serpico also talked jovially about his love of nature, hiking, the Mediterranean diet and the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He also spoke of his upbringing in Brooklyn.
“Deeds are like stones. Cast upon the water, they make ripples,” he said. “Whether the deeds are good or evil they still make ripples. The bigger the stone or deed, the bigger the ripples. Sometimes these ripples last a lifetime.”
Serpico went on to describe a few of the “ripples” that affected his life:
• His father, a World War I prisoner of war, who taught him frugality and survival skills.
• Once, while working at his father’s shoeshine shop, a police officer came in for a shine and walked out without paying, tipping or saying thank you. “I thought, ‘How could a police officer do such a thing?’”
On a recent speaking engagement in the Netherlands, he met a local police commissioner who said he was inspired to become a cop in 1974 after watching Serpico, which starred Al Pacino in the title role.
“You do deeds and—sometimes unbeknownst to you—they make ripples and affect people’s lives,” Serpico said. “I’ve heard similar stories by police I’ve met throughout the years.”
Serpico advised the EMBA students to pick up Committing the Truth: A Corporate Whistleblowers Survivor’s Guide (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2011), a book he is reviewing for the nonprofit Government Accountability Project.
“You might want to keep that handy in today’s business world of greed and corruption,” he said.
When asked about the midterm elections, Serpico revealed why he hasn’t voted in 25 years.
“I believe the word ‘politics’ comes from the two roots: poly, which means many, and ticks, which is a blood sucking insect,” he said.
As far as whether ethics have improved in the NYPD, he said, “Things don’t change like that. You can’t just sit back. I get letters from all over the country and world from cops trying to do the right thing. The thing is, nobody wants to listen to them. Nobody wants to upset the apple cart.”
Serpico referred to Adrian Schoolcraft, a suspended NYPD officer who last May released secretly recorded tapes to the Village Voice that allegedly show corruption within the 81st precinct.
Schoolcraft maintains that supervisors ordered officers to arrest people who committed no crime simply to meet quotas.
“He was doing a good job,” Serpico said. “Being a good cop is not just arresting people. It’s trying to keep kids out of jail and helping citizens and doing good public relations. And what happened to him? He was threatened by one of his officers and so he went home sick. This is 2010, and that night they pulled him out of his bed, handcuffed him behind his back and took him to the psych ward in Jamaica where they held him there for six days, handcuffed to a gurney.
“As they say in France, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—the more things change, the more they stay the same,” he added. “You can’t let down your guard.”
Serpico was invited to Fordham by Francis Petit, Ed.D., the director of the EMBA program.
“As the Jesuit executive MBA program of New York, one of our main goals is to be a catalyst in the development and cultivation of principled leaders and professionals. This has become a heightened focus, given the current environment of corruption, greed and scandal among those with power and influence,” Petit said.
“Frank Serpico is a person who remained true to his moral convictions even in a very difficult, dangerous and tumultuous environment. All individuals, including executives, can learn a great deal from the journey Frank Serpico traveled as a New York City police officer.”