y personal story didn’t end with the movie, or with my retirement from the force in 1972. It continues right up to this day. And the reason I’m speaking out now is that, tragically, too little has really changed since the Knapp Commission, the outside investigative panel formed by then-Mayor John Lindsay after I failed at repeated internal efforts to get the police and district attorney to investigate rampant corruption in the force. Lindsay had acted only because finally, in desperation, I went to the New York Times, which put my story on the front page. Led by Whitman Knapp, a tenacious federal judge, the commission for at least a brief moment in time supplied what has always been needed in policing: outside accountability. As a result many officers were prosecuted and many more lost their jobs. But the commission disbanded in 1972 even though I had hoped (and had so testified) that it would be made permanent.
And today the Blue Wall of Silence endures in towns and cities across America. Whistleblowers in police departments — or as I like to call them, “lamp lighters,” after Paul Revere — are still turned into permanent pariahs. The complaint I continue to hear is that when they try to bring injustice to light they are told by government officials: “We can’t afford a scandal; it would undermine public confidence in our police.” That confidence, I dare say, is already seriously undermined.
But an even more serious problem — police violence — has probably grown worse, and it’s out of control for the same reason that graft once was: a lack of accountability.
Today the combination of an excess of deadly force and near-total lack of accountability is more dangerous than ever: Most cops today can pull out their weapons and fire without fear that anything will happen to them, even if they shoot someone wrongfully. All a police officer has to say is that he believes his life was in danger, and he’s typically absolved.
Serpico was one of those rare officers who tried to do the right thing and hold his profession accountable to the public. For his sins against the thin blue line he was basically made persona non grata at the New York Police Department where he worked and other departments throughout the country. And when you become persona non grata amongst police it often results in your being killed when you fellow officers refuse to render you assistance when it’s needed most (Serpico, fortunately, survived when his fellows decided not to act as backup when his life was in peril).
Many people are quick to dismiss any advocacy of private policing. Critics say that private policing would guarantee that the wealth enjoy police protection while the poor would end up under their boots. Truth be told we already live in the distopia that those critics warn us about. It’s the inevitable outcome of hierarchy. The police, who are the state’s weapon of choice when wielding its monopoly on coercion, ensure that the people live under the boot of the politicians and their corporate partners. Because of their monopoly we the people have no real recourse. If we take issue with the actions of police officers we are free to bring them up to the police officers and they will choose whether or not to investigate themselves. Usually these self performed investigations lead to the accused officer(s) receiving a paid vacation before they are found innocent of all wrongdoing. They can stomp on us and there’s nothing we can realistically do to stop them (at least within the system).
What Serpico’s story shows us is that the lack of accountability exists internally as well. People, especially when referring to politics, talk about changing the system within. In the case of policing the internal system guards against such attempts. So policing is entirely unaccountable. Externally we the people can’t do anything because the police have been granted a legal monopoly on coercion and we have no. Internally genuinely good officers can’t do anything because the wicked police officers will ostracize the good and even put their lives in jeopardy.