And 40+ years later it might be worse in the NYPD. The candidates for Mayor all believe either that the current police chief should be replaced or that an “Inspector General” should be appointed to oversee the department.
The issues might be different; Serpico’s ordeal centered mainly around bribes and payoffs, not brutality and ‘testilying’. But the difficulties – and dangers – of taking on the police for wrongdoing in any serious way are still there. Perhaps they will always be there. Perhaps it is the nature of the beast.
You can change chiefs and it’s “…meet the new boss, same as the old boss…” You can appoint an IG, or some other bureaucratic commissioner of some kind, and before long you get regulatory capture or revolving doors or – once again – bribes and payoffs.
In the end there may be no substitute for the practice of virtues, like courage and justice (but of course don’t forget temperance and prudence). Our willingness – or unwillingness, as the case may be – to insist on decent and civilized behavior from our police departments will ultimately determine what kind of police departments we will have. The people of Mount Morris, New York – at least those who vote – have displayed such a high tolerance for police misconduct that it’s fair to say they approve of it. They have ignored brutal rape. They could just as easily – indeed more easily – ignore murder: one less complainant to deal with.
This is what it comes down to in a vacuum where the rule of law is suspended or does not exist: force and violence. And I have to say that that state of affairs always implicates the legal profession, which must have degenerated well before the general population. The legal profession – especially including the judiciary - is the natural safeguard against law enforcement corruption.
The practice of the cardinal virtues wouldn’t be so praiseworthy if it was easy to do it. But we can’t tolerate it being impossible. When virtue is punished and corruption is rewarded this is both a terrible injustice inflicted on the victims and also a massive social problem. The results for Frank Serpico were mixed. The NYPD’s track record and public image have ebbed towards integrity and flowed towards infamy multiple times since the now obscure Knapp commission hearings Serpico’s virtue helped bring about.
Corruption will always be with us, I guess. But if that’s the case, then the Frank Serpico’s of the world are utterly indispensable. They stand between us and the abyss. Yet how many people know who Frank Serpico is as compared with how many people can identify Kim Kardashian?
Some days it doesn’t look good, and I’m not just talking about the stock market.