Ethical Perspective of the Movie Serpico

Serpico is an American movie of 1973 starring Al Pacino as Frank Serpico and directed by Sidney Lumet. The script is written by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler. The movie is inspired by real life events (and captured in the book by Peter Maas) that revolve around the unethical practices in the police force. The movie is summarized by a quote from John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Action, “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The movie through Al-Pacino or Frank Serpico portrays the justice system of being corrupt, a practice that is overwhelmingly encouraged by various parties and departments in the justice ministry.

In the movie, Frank Serpico becomes a police officer in 1960 and immediately integrates his not so police-like ways of apprehending criminals. One of the most noticeable acts in the beginning of his career is the refusal to embrace corruption that was already predominant in the police system. Among the acts of corruption that Serpico never fancied were taking payoffs from gambling, getting involved in drug dealing, and generally declining all sorts of bribes. The noble gesture, however, did not go down well with his compatriots in the force, who had a succinct suspicion about him. Furthermore, it became apparently hard for Serpico to comfortably fit in with the rest of the crew because of his stance on corruption and the unethical practices witnessed in the police force. Despite, Serpico taking the initiative of discussing and reporting the issue of corruption to his superior, he never succeeded because the bosses seem to take no action. Although he somehow gets assistance from Bob Blair (Tony Roberts), Serpico still could not get anywhere with the fight against corruption. As Blair was a police officer with connections in the right places, Serpico believed that he would be adequately suitable to bring the vice to an end. However, even Blair could not handle the administration’s perceived indifference.

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The consequences of Serpico fighting corruption were so grave that he even developed mental problems as well as causing him a relationship with fiancée, Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young) making the two part ways. He later finds a fellow officer who agrees to help in the fight against gambling activities in the city and also to publicize the story in the New York Times. His wish of working in the department dealing with narcotics then materializes as Serpico is transferred to the preferred docket. Unfortunately, the department he yearned for turned out to be the most corrupt. Besides, the department of narcotics turns out to be more hostile than he had anticipated, and it is pure because of his stance on corruption and practice of unethical activities within the police department. The majority of Frank Serpico’s compatriots become enemies who view him as an impediment to their resourceful activities. During a drug raid in the city on a heroin den, he gets shot in the face simply because his fellow officer could not offer help in time. To worsen the situation, Serpico was left for dead only for two police officers to find him. While recuperating under the care of his family and a few loyal friends, Serpico still receives hate mails from various corners of the corrupt divide. As the movie ends, Frank Serpico gives his testimony to the Knapp Commission about corruption. He was later promoted to the rank of a detective, an achievement he had dreamt of throughout his life, and feted by the New York Police Department for his actions against corruption. Worryingly, among those feted together with him are the same officers who had abandoned when he got shot. Despite the promotion and decoration, Serpico still resigned from the department.

The movie director, Sydney Lumet, cites the extent of the rot in the police department and the ethical decay within our culture despite the efforts of a few to change the norm. Both the antagonist and the protagonists are portrayed in a desperately contrasting picture of handling ethical situations within the cultural system. Serpico, the antagonist, was tasked with the mandate of bringing change into a culture that was already corrupted by the protagonists, the corrupt police officers, and the department supervisors. These supervisors are also part of the problem because of the way they conduct promotions and the failure to report instances of crime within their ranks. The movie highlights how promotions are made based on the person without considering the performance of an individual. This quote from the movie Serpico summarizes the stance of the antagonist in cleaning up the police culture of NYCPD, “many of his fellow officers considered him the most dangerous man alive-an honest cop”. By fighting corruption, Serpico became an endangered man because of the constant threats he received from fellow officers within the police department. Serpico and Sergeant David Durk, reported corruption cases to their superiors who decided not to take any action, prompting the two to seek the aid of a reporter, David Burnham, of the New York Times. When the report was published, Mayor Lindsay acted promptly by appointing a commission of inquiry into the allegations of graft and corruption in the NYCPD. The Knapp Commission, therefore, sought out to find the answers and apply justice where necessary. After scrutiny by the commission, a massive shaken up was conducted in the police department. The movie director and the screenwriter had conveyed a special message to the public and the police fraternity by making the antagonist, Serpico, a character that even declined free meals and bribes from gambling operations. As witnessed in the movie, the criminal mafia groups have taken over the police department which should be protecting people from such criminals. It is Serpico who stood against this culture of the police and criminals colluding to inflict suffering on the civilians. The commission unearthed high levels of unethical practices by the police department and went ahead to recommend the prosecution of those found culpable.

The movie has gone in a long way in expressing the problems of some police officers and the public at large against the corrupt individuals within the society. The movie highlights how police officers are shaped, influenced, and consumed by the police culture. The recruits learn from the senior police officers, hence indulge in similar vices such as corruption and irresponsible crimes. Proceedings of the Knapp Commission help understand how corruption and other unethical practices have ruined the values of the police culture. The movie can be explained by individualism, whereby the bond between the public and the police is broken because of the mistrust between the two parties (Okpara, 2014).

According to Exploring Criminal Justice by Regoli and Hewitt, “the police supervisors must admit when corruption exists and confront the problem. Furthermore, they must recognize that corruption often begins at the top and drifts downward through the ranks. However, in the scenario of the movie Serpico the supervisory team of the NYCPD have neglected their duties and developed the protagonist culture towards corruption in the police department. Corruption in the NYCPD has always been evident since the 1970s; therefore Serpico displayed an act of honor by standing against rampant unethical practices in the society at large. Leadership normally calls for standing for what one believes in despite any challenges. Serpico is viewed as a leader because he opposed pervasive organized corruption in the police department. The police administration of the NYCPD lacks any leadership content because of the failure of the supervisors to take any action against corrupt individuals. For many years, policing has been widely viewed as a field for developing public heroes and heroines. However, the movie, Serpico disregards the perception as the majority of the officers have turned to unethical behavior while carrying their duties (VanderPal & Ko, 2014). Failure by the police administration comprising of the supervisors prompted an external agency to look into the case of corruption within the NYCPD, and the findings were appalling.

At the time the movie Serpico was released, the concept of corruption amongst police officers was so dominant that the public almost accepted it as a normal behavior. However, after being watched by the public, the perception of the people changed completely hence a change in the cultural aspect. The movie depicts the police administration as a corrupt system that cannot even investigate itself prompting an external agency to offer aid. The external agency on its part managed to create and implement an oversight role orchestrated by the courageous deeds of a police officer, Serpico. The leadership and ethical actions of the cop is an indication in the right direction for the future generations of police officers (Nolder & Riley, 2014). Creating an ethical environment for service delivery makes the public develop trust and respect for the department of justice. With police atrocities and extra-judicial actions on the rise, the bravery and nobility of citizens such as Serpico should not go unappreciated.



Nolder, C. & Riley, T. (2014). Effects of Differences in National Culture on Auditors’ Judgments and Decisions: A Literature Review of Cross-Cultural Auditing Studies from a Judgment and Decision Making Perspective. AUDITING: A Journal Of Practice & Theory, 33(2), 141-164.

Okpara, J. O. (2014). The effects of national culture on managers’ attitudes toward business ethics. Journal Of Accounting & Organizational Change, 10(2), 174-189.

VanderPal, G. & Ko, V. S. C. (2014). An Overview of Global Leadership: Ethics, Values, Cultural Diversity and Conflicts (3rd ed., pp. 1-10). Retrieved from