“Nothing’s changed,” the 76-year-old Serpico said in a recent phone interview when asked about the current crop of whistle-blowers. “It’s the same old crap — kill the messenger.”
In the ongoing federal trial over stop and frisk, lawyers for men who have sued police are seeking to show a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic men are being wrongly stopped in part because officers are under too much pressure to keep enforcement numbers up.
Serrano, along with Officers Adhyl Polanco and Adrian Schoolcraft secretly recorded hours of patrol briefings, meetings with bosses and encounters on the streets that they say show they were being targeted by overzealous officials bent on making their precincts look good. The recordings were played at trial.
Both Serrano and Polanco said they made stops they didn’t think were right as a result.
“I was extremely bothered with what I was seeing out there,” Polanco testified. “The racial profiling, the arresting people for no reason, being called to scenes that I did not observe a violation and being forced to write a summons that I didn’t observe.”
Polanco said he agonized over the decision to come forward.
“I was afraid,” he said. “It’s not that easy to report corruption. … Look at what happened to Schoolcraft.”
Schoolcraft, who didn’t appear in court because he has filed his own federal suit, was taken to a psychiatric ward in 2009 by his superiors, he says against his will. He remains suspended.
Polanco was suspended with pay for years after internal affairs officers brought charges of filing false arrest paperwork; he says the charges came because he detailed a list of complaints to internal affairs.
Serrano testified that he received poor evaluations, was denied vacation days and was forced to work overtime as punishment because he tallied too few arrests and stop-and-frisk reports.
“There’s a whole bunch of things they do, but they’re minor,” Serrano said. “But when you put it all together, it becomes a hostile work environment.”
For example, he says, he never saw his commanding officer until word got out about his quota allegations — then the official was personally checking Serrano’s shift paperwork. He says he was forced to drive around with a sergeant and issue summonses and stop people until he brought up his numbers. Even after his numbers improved, his evaluations didn’t. And he claimed he was forced to come in during a massive snowstorm even though he was nearly in a car accident.
When asked whether Serrano’s complaints were considered punishment, several other officers who testified said no — it’s just part of the job.
Most officers “leave their house every day to go to work to protect the city. They have the best intentions all the time, and they do it,” Joseph Esposito, the former chief of the department, testified. “There is a small percentage … we’re talking about in any profession, there is a group that will try to do the least amount and get paid the most.”
After Serrano appeared in court last month, he was transferred from the Bronx to a Manhattan precinct where he now works the midnight shift.
Serpico, who adopted a pet rat after he was accused of being one, says he holds the bosses responsible.
“Their message is ‘Do you want to write a summons or do you want to be delivering pizza? As a police officer, you’re duty-bound to refuse an illegal order. … But where do you go? The police department doesn’t want to hear it.”
Serpico, who now lives in upstate New York, still feels like an outsider to the police. He says he’s there to listen when fellow whistle-blowers reach out.
“I’ve become their grandfather,” he said. “They don’t want nothing. They just want somebody who knows what they’re going through. I give them moral support.”
FAMOUS WHISTLEBLOWER–In this Dec. 13, 1971 file photo, New York City Detective Frank Serpico, right, sits beside his attorney, Ramsey Clark, in New York, during the Knapp Commission hearings on police corruption. Things haven’t changed much since Serpico broke the NYPD’s code of silence more than 40 years ago. Police officers are still encouraged to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing within their ranks and never question authority, or else face harassment by peers and punishment by superiors. (AP Photo/Jim Wells, File)
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