Frank Serpico was born on April 14, 1936 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents, Vincenzo and Maria Giovanna, were Italian immigrants from the city of Marigliano. When he turned eighteen, Frank joined the US Army and served in Korea for two years.
After returning to the United States, Frank decided to go to college to study law enforcement. During his free time, he worked as a private investigator and youth counselor to help pay his tuition bills. After graduating, Frank applied to join the New York Police Department and was accepted in 1959.
On September 11, 1959, Frank was given his shield and given a position as a probationary patrolman in the NYPD. He was very excited about getting the job and he immediately had his badge plated so it would be shiny. After a probationary period of several months, he was made a full patrolman on March 5, 1960.
Frank's first assignment was the 81st police precinct, where he helped to arrest a lot of criminals. After that, he was transferred to the Bureau of Criminal Identification to work with fingerprints. After two years, he was allowed to work as a plainclothes undercover officer on the street and given a lot more freedom in his hunt for criminals.
As a plainclothes officer, Frank's primary job was to expose and arrest people involved in drug dealing, prostitution, and gambling. He was a very upstanding officer and refused to accept bribes from criminals. Unfortunately, as he would soon notice, his fellow officers were quite corrupt and frequently took bribes or pocketed evidence.
In 1967, Frank made his first formal report about the "widespread, systematic police corruption", but the police department failed to do anything about it. He allied himself with a fellow officer, David Durk, who supported his cause and helped him to reveal the corruption. Unfortunately, they didn't seem to get very far regardless of the avenues they pursued.
In early 1970, Frank Serpico became so frustrated with the bureaucracy and corruption of the NYPD that he went public with his tales of corruption. As a result, he was given numerous death threats and even assaulted by fellow officers. On April 25, 1970, the New York Times published a front-page story about the NYPD's corruption, finally causing the mayor, John Lindsay, to do something about it by appointing the Knapp Commission.
In the meantime, Frank continued working as an undercover officer and refusing to let the death threats scare him away. Unfortunately, it was necessary for him to continue working with other officers that he had exposed, who weren't very happy about it. At about 11 PM on February 3, 1971, Frank and three other cops found themselves involved in a drug bust.
Officers Gary Roteman and Arthur Cesare were waiting in a car in front of an apartment building, with a third officer, Paul Halley, standing out in front of the building. Frank did the surveillance by climbing up a fire escape and listening in on the heroin deal. The two kids involved in the deal then left the building, where they were apprehended by Halley.
After the arrests, officer Roteman instructed Frank to enter the building and feign interest in buying heroin so they could get into the dealers' apartment. Frank, Roteman, and Cesare entered the building and Frank approached the door and knocked on it. After indicating that he wanted to buy heroin, the door opened slightly and Frank wedged himself in the door, while the dealers slammed it shut on him, pinning him in the doorway.
Left helpless, Frank called for help, but the other officers had apparently left the building. He was shot in the face with a .22 handgun and the bullet entered his cheek, lodging into his upper jaw. He fell to the floor and lay there bleeding until an elderly Hispanic man saw him and called 911. A police car arrived before the ambulance and took Frank to Greenpoint Hospital, where he was treated for the wound. The officers that had accompanied him never bothered to call for an ambulance and simply left the scene, strongly suggesting that they had malicious intent to have him killed.
The aftermath of the gunshot wound was that Frank was permanently deafened in his left ear and the fragments of bone lodged in his brain cause him chronic pain. He survived the trauma and visited the day after by Patrick Murphy, the police commissioner, and John Lindsay, the mayor of New York City. Frank went on to testify before the Knapp Commission about police corruption and bribery.
Frank's story became widespread after his testimony and he was featured in the New York Metro Magazine on May 3, 1971. On May 10, 1971, Frank testified against a fellow officer who was accepting bribes from gamblers. On May 14, 1971, Frank was promoted to the rank of detective and given a gold shield. In May of 1972, Frank was awarded the NYPD's Medal of Honor for his honesty and bravery in fighting corruption.
Frank was married to several different women over his lifetime. In 1957, he married Mary Ann Wheeler, but divorced her in 1962. In 1963, he married Leslie Lane, a fellow college student, and they divorced in 1965. In 1966, he married Laurie Young, but they divorced in 1969. On June 15, 1972, Frank left the police department to move to Europe. In 1973, he married a woman named Marianne, who would be his final wife, but she tragically died from cancer in 1980. He decided to return to the United States afterward.
Author Peter Maas penned a biography of Frank Serpico that is named, "Serpico: The Classic Story of the Cop Who Couldn't Be Bought". The book sold over three million copies and inspired a film adaptation. The film, 1973's "Serpico", was directed by Sidney Lumet and starred Al Pacino as Serpico. In 1976, NBC produced a television movie about Serpico called "The Deadly Game".
"I hope that police officers in the future will not experience the same frustration and anxiety that I was subjected to for the past five years at the hands of my superiors because of my attempt to report corruption. We create an atmosphere in which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer, and not the other way around. The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which honest police officers can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers." - Frank Serpico before the Knapp Commission
"The fight for justice against corruption is never easy. It never has been and never will be. It exacts a toll on our self, our families, our friends, and especially our children. In the end, I believe, as in my case, the price we pay is well worth holding on to our dignity." - Frank Serpico regarding integrity