Representations of Police Deviance in Serpico

Posted: February 28, 2015 by jarnelldosanjh92 in Uncategorized

Serpico is a 1973 American crime drama film, based on a true story and starring Al Pacino as Frank Serpico. Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler wrote the screenplay, adapting Peter Maas’s biography of officer Frank Serpico, who went undercover to expose corruption in the New York Police Force. While working as a uniformed patrolman, Frank Serpico shines through at every assignment. He moves on to plainclothes assignments, where he slowly discovers a hidden world of corruption and deviance among his own colleagues. After witnessing cops commit violence against suspect, taking payoffs, and other forms of police corruption, Serpico decides to expose what he has seen, but he is harassed and threatened by his fellow officers. The struggle leads to infighting within the police force, problems in his personal relationships, and Serpico’s life being threatened. Finally, after being shot in the face during a drug operation on February 3, 1971, he testifies before the Knapp Commission, a government inquiry into NYPD police corruption between 1970 and 1972. After receiving a New York City Police Department Medal of Honor and a disability pension, Serpico resigns from the police force and moves to Switzerland.

The Knapp Commission was a committee of five citizens that investigated corrupt activities of police officers, detectives, and supervisors working in the New York Police Department. The Knapp Commission found that the most serious police misconduct involved situations like providing protection for illegal gambling establishments, selling narcotics, overlooking building code violations on construction sites, and tolerating illegal parking in the commercial district (Armstrong, 2012).The Knapp Commission discovered that corrupt NYPD police officers were collecting protection money and were on the “pad,” which meant that they took bribes from criminals to ensure the criminals that their illegal activities could continue without the threat of being investigated by the police. Many of the criminals involved in bribing police officers prior to the Knapp Commission were involved in vice crime rackets like prostitution and gambling. However, the Knapp Commission and subsequent investigations found that the flow of money involved in the illicit narcotics trade afforded new corruption opportunities. One of the commission’s chief witnesses was a police officer named William Phillips who was caught receiving bribes during an investigation conducted by the commission. The Commission also established that there were two different kinds of corrupt officers; these were the so-called grass eaters, and meat eaters. Meat eaters are police officers who “aggressively misuse their police powers for personal gain”(H-Net,1997). Grass eaters are officers who simply accept payoffs that the happenstances of police work throw their way; basically grass eaters are officers of all ranks who took bribes to allow gamblers, prostitutes and other criminals to avoid the law and escape arrest (NY Times,1994).

Media representations of the police are important in understanding the significance of policing. The media do present the police in a favorable way. News stories portray cops in the way they want to see themselves, particularly “as the thin blue line between order and chaos”(Reiner, 2010). The police are cast as the heroes who protect the victimized weak from the criminal underworld. Before the 1970’s police deviance stories were reported through a one bad apple framework. Such stories implied that there was only one individual who was committing wrongdoings. This kind of news reporting proved to the audience that the whole police force was still legitimate, the police force just had one rotten apple so to say. Media reporting presently has time and time again placed corruption reports “in a framework that legitimizes the police institution at the same time as reporting widespread deviance”(Reiner, 2010). Police deviance movies like Serpico portray a story of the good apple in a rotten barrel. These stories focus on a lone honest officer and his battle against organizational corruption. Most of these good apple in a rotten barrel stories developed right after the Knapp Committee investigations. The media also focuses much attention on the deviant police officer, who is a bad apple in a clean barrel. The main character is cop who takes up a brutal vigilante style. The protagonists rule bending is the result of the combined pressure of the general cynicism induced by police work and some special psychological weakness (Reiner, 2010). An example of this is Sidney Kingsley’s play Detective Story.

The media acts as agents of reform. By painting a picture of deviance, corruption or injustice, “media stories contribute to the sense of urgency regarding the need for action to combat such corrupt or unjust practices”(Chan,1995). Organizations whose deviance is being exposed are capable of, and are engaged in, shaping ,and developing public discourse to minimize damage to their image, as well as to project a sense of order and control by reporting on actions being undertaken to fix the problem. There are two cultures of police reporters. There are the inner circle reporters who typically work for popular media outlets and who are trusted by the police to carry stories which are more likely to boost the popular image of the police. The outer circle reporters  typically work for quality media outlets and are prepared to engage in investigative reporting and present stories which expose deviant police practices. Typically, police forces seek to enhance their image by having media units in charge of giving information to the media. When police deviance becomes a major public issue through media coverage, police organizations must seek access to the media to effect damage control. Public scandals also require immediate repair work within police organizations. Since scandals threaten to expose organizational weaknesses and reveal systemic abuses, organisational representatives must restore and bolster up the ”myth system”. They do so by attempting to minimize the issue, by claiming that a problem was caused by a few individuals, and critics may insist that it was not a matter of a few rotten apples, but a rotten barrel. Television images are powerful and convincing. Viewers may have read or heard about the problems of police, but television allows the audience to see the problems as if they were there. The television images are particularly revealing, and where there are clear breaches of rules or regulations, this is extremely embarrassing for the force if portrayed on t.v (Chan,1995).


 Armstrong, M. F. (2012). They wished they were honest: The knapp commission and new york city police corruption. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chan, J. (1995, January 1). Damage control : Media representation and responses to police deviance. Retrieved from

CORRUPTION IN UNIFORM; Excerpts of What the Commission Found: Loyalty Over Integrity. (1994, July 7). Retrieved from

KNAPP COMMISSION (Police). (n.d.). Retrieved from

Mackey, T. (1997, November 1). Meat-eaters and Grass-eaters. Retrieved from

Reiner, R. (2010). The politics of the police (4th ed.). Brighton, Sussex: Wheatsheaf Books

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