Frank Serpico Has Seen This All Before

This show features Government Accountability Project’s Legal Director Tom Devine and originally aired here.

In recent months, we’ve been able to witness police misconduct from anywhere in the nation, via smartphone video captured by civilians and activists on the ground. More often than not, though, the only witnesses to police misconduct are the victims of it, as well as any other cops on the scene. But history shows that overwhelmingly cops seldom inform on one another — partly because of an omertà-like honor code, the so-called “blue wall of silence,” and partly due to fear of retaliation from their colleagues. Which is why, according to Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), police reforms are all but useless without protection for those courageous and honorable enough to blow the whistle. Bob spoke with Tom about GAP’s efforts to embed protections for police whistleblowers into law enforcement reform legislation.

The most famous American cop-whistleblower is Frank Serpico, who in the late 1960s reported widespread corruption and brutality in New York City’s police department. His complaints led to a New York Times expose, an official commission exploring police corruption and, in 1973, the movie Serpico, which dramatized his struggle and the price he paid for his honesty. When he was shot in the face during a 1971 drug enforcement operation, his fellow officers refused to summon help and left him for dead. He lives, and so does his half-century-long struggle for accountability. He told Bob that change in police departments is possible, but that it would require overhauling the cultural traditions many police officers cherish.