Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

by M.L. Brown

Who watches the watchmen?

New York City's Watchmen and Serpico

Frank Serpico was an Italian immigrant and New York City police officer who blew the whistle on systemic corruption within the city's police department. While working plainclothes on the force, Serpico witnessed the sacrifice of competence and service on the force in favor of "cliquishness" and the foregoing of justice in favor of "big, blatant bribes" from merchants and criminals alike (Kilgannon).

His reporting resulted in his being harassed by other police officers, culminating in what many believe was a deliberate attempt on his life: his fellow officers abandoned him in the middle of a drug raid, and delayed reporting his peril to the police station after he was subsequently shot in the head. The incident left him deaf in his left ear (Kilgannon).

During his recovery, and leading up to his testimony against the NYCPD's corrupt practices, Serpico was harassed at his bedside with incessant visits and received threats in the form of sinister get-well-soon cards telling him to "rot in hell", among other things. (Kilgannon). Serpico persevered despite the intimidation, and his testimony became the infamous centerpiece of the Knapp Commission hearings (Kilgannon).

The whistleblower's story was later made famous with the production of the movie Serpico (1973), based off of Peter Maas' biography of the same name (Serpico). He is regarded as a legendary figure today by many (and still scorned by some in the NYCPD) for his actions (Haberman).
Serpico 1973 scene
Above: a scene from Serpico (1973), depicting some early tensions between Frank Serpico and his peers on the NYCPD preceeding the eventual attempt on his life.
Above: Frank Serpico (not Al Pacino) in 2010, courtesy of The New York Times (Romero).

Justin Hopson and the Lords of Discipline—A Modern Example

Justin Hopson was a New Jersey policeman who became subject to harassment by a secret society within the New Jersey state police force known as the "Lords of Discipline" after refusing to support corrupt practices within the force. His ordeal began with the March 2002 arrest of a woman for drunk driving—a woman who, Hopson alleged, was sitting in the back seat of the suspected car. A larger conflict then grew out of this incident when Hopson refused to testify in support of the arrest (Jones).

Threats began to be left around Hopson's workspace, and he became subject to harassment by a secret group known as the "Lords of Discipline" within the state police force. Members would drive by his house in the middle of the night and breathe harshly into loudspeakers outside his home (Moore). Hopson's car was vandalized, and Hopson was victim to a series of beatings at the hands of the members, causing him to file a lawsuit against the force in December 2003 (Jones). His suit sparked the largest internal investigation in the history of the New Jersey state police (Moore).

Years prior to Hopson's whistleblowing, females and members of minorities within the police force also complained about harassment from the group. Hopson later claimed he came forward with his allegations to make the public aware of the insular group and to spur broader changes within the culture of the state police (Jones).

Hopson's suit ended with seven state troopers receiving punishments "ranging from reprimands to 45-day suspensions" (Jones), as well as a $400,000 cash settlement for Hopson.
Ominously, the attorney general's office reported that it "found no evidence that the Lords of Discipline existed within the State Police" (Jones).

"'It’s somewhat bittersweet because there’s still work to be done,' said Mr. Hopson, who added that the Lords of Discipline is still active."

from The New York Times (Jones).
Above: Justin Hopson, courtesy of the Post and Courier (Nettles).

In the End

In 2012, Hopson published a book about his experiences titled "Breaking the Blue Wall", and moved to Charleston, South Carolina, with his family. He now works periodically with the county's Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Advisory Board, and owns the private investigation firm Hopson Investigations (Moore).

Financially secure since the publishing of Peter Maas' biography (which sold more than three million copies) and the release of the exalted film Serpico (1973), Frank Serpico lived comfortably based out of Europe for a time with royalty income. He eventually settled a couple hours north of New York City in a cabin on the Hudson River, where he maintains a health-conscious and naturopathic lifestyle (Kilgannon). Today, he continues to criticize what he believes is perennial corruption in the NYCPD (Haberman).

Some Analysis

There is a disturbing trend of self-aggrandizement present here that tarnishes the noble ideal of the whistleblower. It is most prominently seen in the case of Justin Hopson, who never fully succeeded in exposing and prosecuting the corruption he told of but still received a $400,000 settlement and enough fame to start his own private investigation firm. One could choose to see this outcome as an adjunct of the corrupt system which Hopson fought against—a system which claims that the Lords of Discipline never existed at all, and uses money to silence the whistleblowers. Or, at the other extreme, Hopson himself could be viewed as just another beneficiary of the corruption, despite his ostensibly noble intentions.

In the case of Frank Serpico, the abuse was much more severe, and the personal rewards greatly delayed and more indirect. Yet he still received plentiful fame and financial security when he was played by Al Pacino in the film Serpico (1973). In the end, though Hopson was courageous, and Serpico heroic, one feels a fraction of the same dispossession that the whistleblowers' themselves must have felt when one takes a broader view of their endeavors; the beloved institutions of our society, whether they be the myth of a noble police force or the cinematic simalucrum of a beloved public figure, must end up with their share of the muck—the self-interest that corrodes our actions, ever-present, whether we ultimately be deemed criminals or heroes in the eyes of the world.

Works Cited

Haberman, Clyde. "Serpico Steps Out of the Shadows to Testify." The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Sep. 1997. Web. 15 Feb. 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/09/24/nyregion/serpico-steps-out-of-the-shadows-to-testify.html

Jones, Richard G. "New Jersey Agrees to Settle Trooper's Harassment Suit." The New York Times. The New York Times, 2 Oct. 2007. Web. 14 Feb. 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/02/nyregion/02lords.html?_r=0

Kilgannon, Corey. "Serpico on Serpico." The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 Jan. 2010. Web. 15 Feb. 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/24/nyregion/24serpico.html

Moore, Thad. "Justin Hopson, Who Shook up New Jersey State Police, Advocates for Doing the Right Thing." Post and Courier. Post and Courier [Charleston, SC], 27 May 2012. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.

Nettles, Brad. "Justin Hopson." Post and Courier. Post and Courier [Charleston, SC], 27 May 2012. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.

Romero, Librado. "Painful Memories." The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 Jan. 2010. Web. 15 Feb. 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/24/nyregion/24serpico.html

. Dir. Sidney Lumet. Perf. Al Pacino. Paramount Pictures, 1973. Film.