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Hero cop emerges to fight corruption, again

September 20, 1997

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ The physical scars from the bullet that tore through his face during a drug bust 26 years ago have faded. The psychic ones still inflict anguish.

``There was no 10-13″ _ an urgent ``assist officer″ radio call _ ``on the night I got hit,″ Frank Serpico says in a low voice. ``I think that tells the whole story.″

His disgust quickly fades, and New York City’s most famous cop whistleblower _ the man portrayed by Al Pacino in the movie ``Serpico″ _ again exudes the serene demeanor of an aging hippie who ``has had a lot of time to think.″

These days, the 61-year-old Serpico has been thinking about the latest scandal to rock the nation’s largest police department: the arrest of four officers for allegedly beating and sodomizing Haitian immigrant Abner Louima inside a police station. He plans to share his thoughts Tuesday at a New York City Council hearing on police corruption and brutality.

The appearance evokes comparisons to his dramatic testimony in the early 1970s before the city’s Knapp Commission, the special panel which investigated systematic and widespread police graft.

As a plainclothes cop, Serpico had dared to turn down payoffs and turn in dirty cops. Fellow officers labeled him a ``rat″ and, he claims, betrayed him the night he was shot.

Serpico recovered to testify about corruption, and was given a medal. Then, disillusioned, he quit the force and fled to Europe, a bullet fragment still lodged in his head.

``He’s a living legend,″ said Norman Siegel, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union and a member of a task force on police brutality formed after the Louima assault. He said having Serpico at Tuesday’s hearing ``will add importance, symbolism and excitement to the issue.″

Serpico quietly returned to the United States in 1980. He studied Eastern philosophy, dabbled in art and writing and sought alternative medical treatment for lingering pain and depression. He stopped voting and reading newspapers.

The trauma of his days as a cop never passed.

``I would have these nightmares about being pursued, and I call the cops and who do you think comes? My old buddies,″ he said.

Serpico, his long hair in a pony tail, now splits time between hideaways: a tiny, solar-powered cabin and a Brooklyn basement apartment. He has a pet white rat he saved from being sold as snake food _ a loyal, affectionate companion, he said.

``They called me a rat,″ he said during lunch at a health food restaurant. ``I take that as a compliment.″

Grave talk of his past and police culture was offset by offbeat asides, including a rave review of this summer’s movie ``Conspiracy Theory.″

``I mean I just kept relating to one thing after another,″ he said of the film. ``I mean, who’s the good guy? Who’s running the show?″

Serpico still covets privacy. He refused to talk about his daily routine and his family, and insisted that the location of the interview not be disclosed.

But he’s hardly a recluse anymore. In recent weeks, he has granted interviews, promoted the reissue of the paperback version of Peter Maas’ ``Serpico,″ and worked with the Arts and Entertainment Network on a biography set to air Monday night.

And with Tuesday’s hearing comes the sequel to his own story: Serpico goes to City Hall.

Why bother?

Serpico sees the attack on Louima as further proof of his conviction that his department and today’s are the same. The cop culture, he believes, is infected with brutality, corruption and racism, and immune to quick-fix solutions.

His prescription: stricter supervision and accountability, better pay for street cops, mandatory and regular psychological evaluations, and true support for officers who report wrongdoing.

``Good guys don’t get ahead in the police department, the way it’s set up,″ he said.

To make another point, Serpico referred to the night of Feb. 3, 1971, when two back-up cops ignored his pleas for help when he found himself trapped in the doorway of a suspected drug den, looking down the barrel of a gun and feeling the heat of the shot.

``A message that I wanna tell cops is: You know who called in `Shots fired, man down?′ A Puerto Rican resident,″ he said.

``That’s who’s going to call. Some black, Oriental, Haitian, law-abiding (person). When you’re down, that’s who’s going to call. And that’s who you have to gain their confidence and respect. That’s your job.″

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