Det. Frank Serpico to Det. Joe Crystal: Nothing has changed in police work - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Det. Frank Serpico to Det. Joe Crystal: Nothing has changed in police work

Eric Garner did not try to grab an officer’s weapon, nor did he assault any police officer. Walter Scott was running away from and not towards a police officer, with no weapons in his hands. He was not a threat to anyone. Freddie Gray did not try to grab an officer’s weapon, nor did he assault any police officer.

Yet all three of these men died at the hands of the police. I say that Freddie Gray died at the hands of the police because he was in their custody. The police had a legal and ethical responsibility to ensure his safety and well-being; they did not do that.

When I was working in law enforcement I was extremely pro-active. I made hundreds of arrests; some involved combative offenders who fought because they did not want to be arrested. I always used the minimum amount of force that was necessary to affect the arrest. In the late 70s and 80s, PCP, LSD and other hallucinogens was prevalent.

PR-24 baton

PR-24 baton

I could not count the number of times a spaced-out offender fought while resisting arrest. Police carried wooden batons and later the PR-24 side handle baton. When trying to subdue on unruly person, sometimes we had to resort to the use of the baton.

The PR-24 was used effectively by many officers, to include strikes to the arm and hand of a knife-wielding suspect. My point is that in all those incidents, and then hundreds of drug search warrants and arrests, I never once had to fire my weapon, although I was always prepared to do so if I needed to. Nobody ever died as a result of any arrest I was involved in.

Today there seems to be a lack of accountability and very little oversight on police departments. Police generally will say that they police themselves and do a pretty good job. That simply is just not true. There are bad cops and good cops, but how many truly honorable cops are out there? Honor and integrity are mottos of most police departments across the country. But are they just words used to express the wishful thinking of police departments? Police who see injustice, brutality and misconduct by fellow officers and take no action to stop it; in effect they condone it by their silence. Where is the honor and integrity in that?

Former Baltimore City Police Detective, Joe Crystal is a prime example why police departments cannot investigate themselves. He witnessed a suspect being beaten while in handcuffs, testified against the two officers, and now is no longer a cop because he could no longer stand being a pariah. He was threatened, harassed and intimidated by other police officers for coming forward. He requested backup on a call and no one responded. He had to go outside his department to the prosecutor’s office to pursue the matter because he was being told to keep his mouth shut by members of his own department. Just the fact that those officers who threatened him are still wearing a badge should say volumes about corruption and misconduct in the Baltimore City Police Department.

Crystal is a hero and the cops who did not support him are cowards that is it plain and simple.

How is it that an honest cop is treated so badly for doing the right thing that he had no choice left but resign from the department and give up the job he loved. That is a disgrace that we allowed that to happen. Society wants cops to stand tall and expose misconduct and corruption within their ranks, but when one does that we do not support them.

I know personally how he felt; I went through the same thing 23 years ago. You feel let down by the very system you believed in. As long as cops have the mentality that another cop who speaks out against police injustice is a bad cop, the problems will continue and citizens will pay the price for it. Where is the ethics in law enforcement?

A few months ago I was talking to a former police officer who remarked that he could not understand why there were so many unarmed people being killed at the hands of the police. Is it the selection process, training or we just getting the wrong people in police work? There is nothing new about people fighting to resist arrest, running away from the police, or moving when told to stop and don’t move by a police officer.

There are those police officers who say that people who make a move after being told to “don’t move” deserve being killed. I read it all the time in the comments section of online newspapers when stories about police involved shootings occur.

“I would rather be tried by twelve, than carried by six,” or making a move is “justification for an immediate execution order” by the police. The comments are even worse when the offender is a minority. The racial slurs go viral, as if a black life is worth less than anyone else.

To all those police officers I have to say one thing about your comments, and that is they are total “b******t. By that way of thinking I could have shot and killed dozens of people when I was on the force. Training does not support that kind of thinking, especially today with interactive video, and shoot-don’t shoot scenarios. Couple that mindset with racial bias or any type of bias against anyone, and you have another tragedy or injustice just waiting to happen.

CAZzM_8WoAAPx_ISuch was the case in May of this year when an investigation of six officers of the San Francisco Police Department, revealed that police officer’s racist and homophobic texts could have compromised criminal investigations. The district attorney’s probe identified 3,000 criminal cases that could have been affected by perceived bias by 14 officers.

“If just one individual was wrongly imprisoned because of bias on the part of these officers, that’s one too many,” the district attorney said.

Former NYPD Detective Frank Serpico, went even further last year when he stated that cowardly cops living by the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ mantra put the good guys in a bad light and threaten the public’s right to justice. He went on to say that “we have cops crying wolf all the time.”  They testify “I was in fear of my life,” the grand jury buys it, the DA winks and nods, and there’s no indictment.

I support what Frank Serpico said. There is something wrong today in police work. Too many unarmed citizens being killed or wounded by police and most often than not the police walk away from criminal charges. People ask how that can be. All the officer has to do is relate that he was in fear of his life or felt threatened by the actions of the suspect and it is case closed. They teach you that in the police academy, so the police know what they have to say should the need arise. If there are no witnesses around and no video, it is the cops word against a dead person, and the benefit of the doubt will always go to the police, whether they are right or wrong.

Corruption and misconduct in police work is still rampant. Compare what happened to Detective Frank Serpico for exposing widespread corruption throughout the NYPD in 1960’s and 1970’s with what happened to Detective Joe Crystal of the Baltimore City Police Department in 2014. One thing has not changed and that is, keep your mouth shut no matter what; you do not go against your fellow officers.

On Feb.  3, 1971 when Frank Serpico walked into a Brooklyn tenement to move in on a drug dealer, he had no idea that he was about to be shot in the face, abandoned by his back-up officers, and left to die on a filthy floor. This honorable, brave man, who had refused to take money from drug dealers, bribes and kickbacks, was now bleeding to death. His backup was nowhere in sight. They never called for assistance or an ambulance. A Hispanic man who tried to comfort him did.

Serpico would later write that one patrol car responded to investigate, and realizing he was a narcotics officer rushed him to a nearby hospital. Serpico later learned that one of the officers who drove him that night said, “If I knew it was him, I would have left him there to bleed to death.” Just how corrupt the NYPD was at that time was evident when his “backups” were later awarded medals for saving his life.

Forty years later, Frank Serpico, at the age of 78, has been living with injuries sustained from that shooting. He is deaf in one ear and walks with a limp, and still has fragments of the bullet that entered his face, lodged near his brain. He states he still gets hate mail from active and retired police officers.

Frank Serpico, 78, still holding true to his values. (YouTube)

Frank Serpico, 78, still holding true to his values.
(YouTube)

Serpico was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1971, the NYPD’s highest award for bravery in action, but never received the certificate that is usually given with the medal. He stated he was only invited once to the annual Medal of Honor ceremonies, and that was by Bernard Kerick, who was the only NYPD commissioner to later serve time in prison. How ironic is that.

In 2014 Frank Serpico wrote something that to me is pretty profound. Serpico wrote, “A few years ago, after the New York Police Museum refused my guns and other memorabilia, I loaned them to the Italian-American museum right down the street from police headquarters, and they invited me to their annual dinner. I didn’t know it was planned, but the chief of police from Rome, Italy, was there and he gave me a plaque. The New York City police officers who were there wouldn’t even look at me.”

What a disgrace that is. A man is so hated, even after all these years, by current NYPD officers and a department who refused to take his memorabilia. For what, exposing corruption in a police department. He is the role model for all honest officers and those that break the blue wall of silence because they truly believe in the oath they swore to when they pinned on the badge. Like I said at the outset, nothing has changed in police work. Former Detective Joe Crystal is living proof of that.

The following excerpt is from Frank Serpico’s testimony before the Knapp Commission in 1972. Forty-three years later it is just as meaningful and powerful as it was then:

…The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which an honest police officer can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers. We create an atmosphere in which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer, and not the other way around.


About the author

Doug Poppa

Doug Poppa is a US Army Military Police Veteran, former law enforcement officer, criminal investigator and private sector security and investigations management professional with 40 years of experience. In 1986 Mr. Poppa was awarded “Criminal Investigator of the Year” by the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia for his undercover work in narcotics enforcement. He was also re-assigned to the Northern Virginia Regional Narcotics Enforcement Task Force for 18 months. In 1991 and again in 1992 Mr. Poppa’s testimony under oath in court led to the discovery that exculpatory evidence was withheld from the defense by the prosecutor and sheriff’s office officials during the 1988 trial of a man accused of attempted murder of his wife that led to his conviction. As a result of his testimony the man was ordered released from prison, given a new trial in 1992 and found not guilty. Mr. Poppa became the subject of local and national news media attention as a result of his testimony which led to the demise of his 12-year police career. After losing his job, at the request of the FBI, Mr. Poppa infiltrated in an undercover capacity a group of men who were plotting the kidnapping of a Dupont Chemical fortune heir and his wife in 1992. His stories have been featured on Inside Edition, A Current Affair, and CBS News’ Street Stories with Ed Bradley. Contact the author.
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