Ethics in Serpico by Peter Maas

Pages: 3
Words: 832

Serpico, written by Peter Maas, may be regarded as a classic story of the confrontation between people who violate all ethical norms of their profession and one person who cannot keep silent. Frank “Paco” Serpico was a police officer in the New York Police Department. He became the first policeman who broke the “blue code of silence,” police officers’ unwritten rule that prohibited them from reporting on colleagues’ mistakes, misconduct, and even crimes. Serpico “not only reported corruption in its ranks but voluntarily, on his own, stepped forward to testify about it in court” (Maas, 1973, p. 14). Of this decision, he became excluded in the workplace, stayed without support, and finally risked his life by being shot in the face when other policemen did not help him.

In general, ethics means the acceptance of moral standards, including honesty, fairness, and justice. Within the framework of the workplace, an ethical person is guided by higher standards that avoid his participation in illegal and immoral activities. When Serpico was assigned to plainclothes duty, after a short time, he realized that police officers are involved in corruption, bribery, and the distribution of drugs. Conducted by his moral principles, Serpico not only refused to take part in organized payoffs – he realized he could not ignore them as well.

As a matter of fact, a person’s ethical system forms during his childhood. For Frank, his father, “a man of independent spirit, devoid of pretense,” was a role model whom he patterned himself after (Maas, 1973, p. 33). Vincenzo showed his son that it is not an appearance but a person’s inner world that should count. He was committed to his occupation with dignity and respect for other people. Moreover, since childhood, Serpico has perceived a policeman as an authoritative figure with “great moral, social, and political implications” (Maas, 1973, p. 76). That is why he wanted to become an officer believing that it was an honorable profession responsible for people’s protection.

Frank Serpico was committed to his duties. However, he believed that people and their labor protected by law should be respected. Moreover, he believed that people would give back much more if they were treated in an ethical way – and he was right. For instance, he refused to leave a large cafe without payment for food as other policemen traditionally did, as he believed it was unethical and illegal to do this (Maas, 1973). When the owner asked him not to pay, he nevertheless left a larger tip and saw how the staff were more attentive to him. In his workplace, he treated criminals as normal human beings perceiving beating as an improper and unnecessary interrogation technique. Thus, in order to get information from a young criminal, he bought him coffee and talked with him (Maas, 1973). In Frank’s ethical system, a policeman should avoid violence and respect an offender’s civil rights as well.

In general, the ethical theory that conducted Serpico’s decision-making and activities was utilitarianism. According to it, actions may be regarded as morally right and ethical if they maximize common happiness and well-being. Thus, Frank reported corruption that affected all levels of the police department, risking his relationships with colleagues and authorities as he understood that it impacted societal order and policemen’s reputation in a highly negative way. He was not afraid to speak out about officers’ misconduct in public as their punishment would be justified by the people’s commonwealth.

Guided by his ethics, Serpico put citizens’ well-being above his own safety and comfort. For instance, he arrested two criminals even when another policeman was supposed to do this because he understood that they could commit another crime in the future. Another time, he ignored the rule of policemen that their responsibilities finished after work. After his shift, Frank went to the most dangerous neighborhoods to be attacked by criminals to catch them, making the community safer (Maas, 1973). Although he realized that he was stigmatized by other police officers for being honest and a man of principle, Serpico believed that his actions are ethical as they contributed to common wellness.

The moral principles of Frank Serpico were stronger than his environment in which people tried to change his mind. For example, Inspector Kellogg convinced Serpico to follow the “blue code of silence” as his report would affect the whole department (Maas, 1973). Moreover, Frank’s family believed that his wound was the result of his ethical conduct. His sister wrote to him: “to you, right is right, wrong is wrong. And there is no other way” (Maas, 1973, p. 77). All in all, she was totally right – in Serpico’s ethical system, a police officer should be an honest and unbiased person who is ready to do everything to protect people and their well-being. Thus, when Frank faced unethical and illegal behaviors of his colleagues that did not comply with his moral principles, he was ready to stand alone against them, protecting his truth and the honor of genuine policemen.


Maas, P. (1973). Serpico. Viking Press.