The Contemporary Relevance of Serpico

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The story of Frank Serpico has particular resonance today. Every day brings new stories of police officers engaging intolerable behavior; tolerated by none except fellow cops, that is. At the heart of Serpico is the revelation that nearly everyone who enters law enforcement is an adherent social control theory of sociology. The conflict between Serpico and corrupt cops is the result of the distance between them on this spectrum of belief.

The ideological foundation of social control theory is the expectation that everybody can be expected to commit a crime and therefore a system of authority is required to keep order. Serpico’s deep moral and ethical stress resulted from the fact even though he also believed in this theory, he did not follow it through to the extreme position that if it is your job to stop people from doing bad things, nothing you do to stop it can be considered a bad thing (Chappell, Piquero 2004). One of the means by which this extreme view gets adopted into the mainstream is peer pressure and when the peers putting on the pressure can accuse you of putting their lives in jeopardy by not becoming a team member the result can be profound alienation like that exhibited by Serpico as he becomes increasing more disconnected from the other officers. Like many who become isolated and exiled from the pack, Serpico seeks solace and relief through interests that essentially serve to take up time rather than meet any intellectual or emotional need.

The fact that Serpico is increasingly disconnected from those in and out of law enforcement indicates that his rejection of the systemic corruption results an abiding morality. While corrupt cops are those that have consistently moved from merely want to be a part of the order of authority that maintains a civilized society toward recognizing that their superior moral basis deserves special recompense, Serpico never made that move. Still a strong believer in the need for authority to be enforced, he never lapsed onto that feeling entitlement.

The story of Serpico’s battles against the NYPD is a textbook case for why a code of silence is an abominable violation of the LEO Coe of Ethics which can never be permitted. Serpico’s dedication illustrates that a code of silence irreversibly contradicts ethical considerations ranging from being “exemplary in obeying the law” to “never employing unnecessary force or violence and never accepting gratuities” (Law Enforcement Code of Ethics). If a code of ethics for law enforcement officers does not apply equally to the public and fellow officers, it is meaningless.

Serpico maintains his ethical dignity when dealing the ugliness of exposing corruption. It would have been incredibly easy for him to have taken less than respectable yet very effective tactics and methods for exposing those engaged in corruption and unlawful behavior. He could have made secret recordings or indulged in entrapment to lure the dirtiest cops out into the open. He could have gone straight to the press and taken on the role of hero like so many less effective politicians elected to office on empty promise to clean their city. Instead, he maintained a commitment ethical standard and observing the rules and regulations of the job.

Worth remembering, however, is that it has been a very long time since public pressure initiated that intense investigation. To suggest that the efforts of Serpico and others eliminated dirty cops in New York City is beyond all reason. A much more reasonable estimation of the extent to which the NYPD is currently infested with corrupt cops is to examine public perception before the exposure. How many people in the city would have thought that the level of dirty play among law enforcement officers was at the elevated level that Serpico’s efforts help to prove it actually was? At any point since Serpico left the force—but especially in the current climate where the code of silence as it relates to use of excessive force seems to mean far more than any code of ethics—the actual level of corruption in the NYPD or any other law enforcement agency is utterly unknown. And will probably remain unknown until or unless the next Serpico comes along.

A strong adherence to the social control theory has always seemed to be a requisite character trait for becoming a law enforcement officer. Most cops become cops in the first place due to a fervent belief in the rule of law and order. At the same time, that very personality which adopts such a strong position in favor of authoritarian response to lawbreakers is going to by necessity be accompanied by a belief system that is very prone to more fascistic elements of maintaining law and order. Serpico consistently indicates a cultural affinity that police officers share. Enhances media coverage and access to social media sharing of acts formerly kept under wraps has in recent years indicated that this culture existing within law enforcement is not one which just promotes either active engage of corruption or the willingness to not protect those so engage. What the high profile incidents of excessive force that have changed the discourse in recent years has really revealed is a disturbing potential for the law enforcement industry to not just attract deviant psychological types, but to actively pursue those members of the population least psychologically fit for the job at hand.


Chappell, A. T., & Piquero, A. R. (2004). Applying social learning theory to police misconduct. Deviant Behavior, 25(2), 89-108. doi:10.1080/01639620490251642

Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. (n.d.).

Moghe, S. (2015, October 2). Report: NYPD fails to discipline officers who use excessive force.