How Racism, Sex Panics, and Fiorello La Guardia Made the Modern NYPD
Historian Emily Brooks’s new book “Gotham’s War Within a War” explores how today’s NYPD was built against the backdrop of World War II and the need for “national security.”
11:09 AM EDT on October 31, 2023
"Police work is now a profession," Fiorello La Guardia announced to NYPD officers shortly after assuming office in 1934. When the "energetic, progressive, and irascible" La Guardia assumed New York City's mayorship in 1934, he and police commissioner Lewis Valentine vowed to create a more ethical police department and combat the corruption that flourished under Tammany Hall rule. But as historian Emily Brooks argues in her new book "Gotham's War Within a War: Policing and the Birth of Law-and-Order Liberalism in World War II–Era New York City," out on October 31, La Guardia's reforms, soon bolstered by the militarized environment of World War II, set the stage for the modern police department, employing tactics that target people of color and working-class people.
Hell Gate spoke to Brooks about La Guardia and Valentine's impact on the NYPD, how the policing of vice and morality took on new urgency in the context of World War II, and how this time period is "the origin story of our current policing model."
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
Hell Gate: You're focusing on policing during World War II, but what did policing look like in New York before then?
Brooks: Though the title really centers World War II, the book looks at policing from 1934 to 1945. Before 1934, for the majority of the previous 80-plus years, City Hall had been controlled by Tammany Hall. During that period, police officers served to shore up the political power of the Democratic Party, the Tammany Democrats in this case, partly by surveilling elections and partly by punishing challengers and smoothing out any scrape that a party functionary might get into.
The tipping point was in the 1930s with the Seabury investigations, and this was a massive undertaking. What came to light were these very high-profile instances of police corruption. Police officers' financial records were investigated and they were banking large amounts of money that didn't match their salaries. They said things like, "Oh, I had an uncle who I didn't know about who left me this box of cash—but nobody else knows about it." They said stuff like this over and over again, so the corruption was very blatant.
It's only because of those investigations that Tammany was discredited enough that La Guardia could actually win the mayor's office. He became very committed to a nonpartisan mode of policing. After his election, when he was talking to high-profile, high-ranking members of the police department, the New York Times quoted him as saying something like, "A police department utterly free of political domination will war upon gangs of criminals that have had official protection." His police commissioner Lewis Valentine was also very committed to that.
Together, they pushed this new mode of policing that said we're going to be polite, fair, equitable, and nonpartisan to all New Yorkers, but criminals will get the nightstick. They said criminals would be met with violence, but what I see throughout my research is that the dividing line between what's criminal and what's not was constructed through racial identities, through gendered identities, through identities of class. So what you have is the emergence of this new policing that is deeply discriminatory, despite being justified through the language of nonpartisanship, anticorruption, and equity.
What were the tools, methods, or strategies that police adopted or used more frequently during La Guardia and Valentine's tenure?
The big strategy that I highlight is that they devoted more police attention to enforcing prohibitions on morality or vice, like sex work, juvenile delinquency, gambling, and disorderly spaces, which was highly discretionary policing. All policing involves a great deal of individual power and discretion, but in this type of policing, that discretion is particularly visible because there is usually no complainant and often no other witness besides the police officer. It is a place where the politics of the police department and individual officers can be seen very clearly.
In practice, this meant that criminalized spaces and people received increased surveillance, and that arrests went up. Prostitution arrests increased 26 percent in Valentine's first year on the job. These arrests were also more concentrated among Black women. Under Valentine and La Guardia, the NYPD also targeted criminalized neighborhoods like Harlem and, for example, launched a series of raids there in the summer of 1937 after Valentine declared a "war on prostitution."
Another part of expanding this surveillance effort was Valentine's division of National Defense, [which was created in 1942] specifically to police for crimes of vice near places that enlisted men frequented. They did a lot of surveillance in Times Square. NYPD leadership regularly reminded officers that it was their duty to protect these enlisted men during their time in the city, though in practice that protection only extended to white enlisted men.
Valentine thought that policewomen had a particular role to play in morality policing because their supposed maternal and feminine qualities made them adept with women and children. Morality policing of women became even more important during the war—historian Anne Gray Fischer notes that nationwide, women's arrests for moral laws violations increased 95 percent during the war. In New York, Valentine expanded the budget quotas for women in the NYPD from 160 to 190 during the war. These openings were almost exclusively for white women, as the department included only a handful of Black women during these years. Women’s responsibilities in the department were heavily gendered and racialized.
Why was sex work such a target during La Guardia's administration?
I'm using that word "prostitution" here because that's the word that was used throughout the sources; today, I would call it sex work. The importance granted toward policing for prostitution really increased during the war because there was this new concern about protecting the health and morality of enlisted white men. There's this idea that the labor of white men was really central to the war effort, and women were framed as a threat to that. There was concern that they would contract venereal diseases from women because there was this idea that venereal diseases, sexually transmitted infections, traveled from women to men, not the other way around.
Black women, Puerto Rican women, working-class women, and young women were all framed as particularly likely to engage in sex work and particularly likely to be threatenting to enlisted men. The war mobilization kind of injected new energy into anti-prostitution campaigns in New York. The passage of the May Act in 1941 made sex work near a military facility a federal crime and allowed the FBI to intervene in cases where it was deemed local law enforcement wasn't doing enough to prevent sex work. There's also the creation of the [now-defunct] Social Protection Division, which was a federal agency devoted to combatting sex work and bolstering local law enforcement efforts.
In New York, the military questioned enlisted men who tested positive for venereal diseases or believed they had contracted diseases.They would ask them what or who the source of contact for the disease was. The City Health Department would also do this. They would share these descriptions and locations, usually of women, with the NYPD to follow up on—and so you had this network of communication for surveilling and policing women.
Were outside pressures influencing how targeted sex work became under La Guardia’s administration, or do you see it as more of a feedback loop?
The City and military were in constant communication about this, but in general, La Guardia and Valentine were committed to it already. La Guardia testified in front of Congress in favor of the May Act and actually argued that it should be stricter. The May Act and other government interventions injected new energy into these projects that La Guardia and Valentine were already committed to.
They were doing things like shutting down the Savoy Ballroom, which was a major nightclub in Harlem and a site where people would host fundraisers for important Black community groups. It was one of the only interracial nightclub spaces left in the city, and there was constant surveillance there because of the accusations that enlisted men were meeting sex workers there.
In the book, when you talk about the closure of the Savoy Ballroom, there’s a lot of concern from the Army, the Health Department, La Guardia, and Valentine about it being an interracial space where white soldiers could meet Black women. How else were concerns about race playing out during the war effort?
There are many ways these anxieties are playing out during the war, but one example is that La Guardia created this commission, the Mayor's Committee on Unity, and I think the name is so informative. It's not the Committee on Civil Rights. The concern is not the inequity, the concern is the unrest that might emerge from the inequity.
The committee is active in an episode where Black soldiers, who were stationed on northeastern Staten Island at an Army facility called Fox Hills, became the target of this racist campaign by the white residents who live around the facility. It was a majority-white area, and during the war, the Army brought about 3,000 Black soldiers to help unload ships. The white community started saying that there was a crime wave. The local district attorney essentially tried to use this as a way to launch a higher profile campaign for himself, and it ended up being this revealing moment where you had the Army, the national NAACP, and the Mayor's Committee on Unity all sending undercover investigators into this neighborhood in Staten Island to interview people about what's going on.
They all produced reports essentially saying that this crime wave was made up and that it was being used as a political tool. The Mayor's Committee on Unity tried to intervene and get legal representation for soldiers who were arrested during the "crime wave." You can see there that they were intensely concerned with the possibility of any type of mass protest or uprising—there was concern among Black New Yorkers that these Black soldiers, who were contributing to the war effort, were being painted as criminals.
But the Army ended up setting up increased security around the facility to reduce the ability of the men to go in and out. The NYPD sent more officers to survey the neighborhood. The NAACP interviewed some of the soldiers, who said that they felt like prisoners of war when, in fact, they were working alongside Italian prisoners of war, who were treated better by nearby white residents. That’s another instance of how the racial politics of policing played out throughout the war.
Let's talk about what La Guardia’s administration meant for Black New Yorkers. What did policing of Black New Yorkers look like before La Guardia's administration?
Under Tammany, Black New Yorkers were not protected. At the same time, the Progressive Era created opportunities for Black saloon owners to create their own autonomous spaces. But because they were excluded from the Democratic Party network, they didn't have the same relationship to police officers that white operators of these types of businesses did. And so, they were also more likely to be victimized in crackdowns or squeezed out by larger criminal groups during Prohibition.
When La Guardia and Valentine came into office, they were concerned with some degree of equity and, for Valentine, the perception of equity. Valentine was very savvy throughout his whole tenure. When speaking to Black audiences, he would say things like, "I wish more qualified Black applicants would apply to the NYPD." There are all these racist implications inherent in the idea that the reason Black men aren't represented in the NYPD was because they were somehow not qualified, rather than because of the racist policies that discriminated against them and prevented them from getting promoted once they were working in the department. So there was more of a concern with appearances.
Then there was also an intensification of criminalization. What we see, for example, with prostitution arrests after the Seabury investigations, is that arrests for prostitution for white women dropped very significantly, but arrests of Black women for prostitution increased both in proportion to arrests as a whole and in raw numbers. The way that Valentine talked about prostitution illustrates what was happening there. He told police officers, "We can't do what they did before Seabury." So don't harass innocent women. But if you see a woman suspected of prostitution and you can't get conclusive evidence, you can arrest her for loitering. The dividing line for criminality was about how officers perceived women's identities—and race was a central part of that.
We've talked about how the war was used to justify this increase in surveillance and arrests. How was the war used to criticize these new reforms?
There was a huge effort to point out the hypocrisy in requiring Black Americans to support the war effort while also excluding them from democracy at home. When the Savoy was closed, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., said, "Hitler has scored a Jim Crow victory in New York." A lot of that kind of language was used in the Fox Hills situation, when people were trying to defend the soldiers who were being criminalized—but at the same time, that language was used by racists who were advancing those narratives to say, "We are American citizens who are sacrificing for the war effort and here, our safety is under attack." There was a formulation that wartime sacrifices are something that white citizens were engaging in, excluding the labor of the Black soldiers actually serving in the military.
There was also a great deal of individualized and collective resistance to surveillance and policing during the 1930s and the war. Incarcerated women repeatedly challenged their indefinite detention in the Women's House of Detention, sending petitions to magistrates demanding that they be sentenced or released. Girls incarcerated in a Brooklyn reformatory launched a daring nighttime escape in August 1944, scaling the building next door and escaping into the night.
Black newspapers were an essential tool for collective resistance. The progressive paper the People's Voice, which was founded by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was particularly vigilant on the topic of policing. The paper, and other Black papers like the Amsterdam News, regularly challenged NYPD narratives and hosted announcements about organizing meetings and groups taking collective action against racist policing.
There were also explosive moments of mass resistance in the form of uprisings in Harlem in 1935 and 1943, both of which were catalyzed by conflicts with police officers. After the uprising of 1935, La Guardia formed a committee to investigate its causes, and in the testimony heard by committee members, Harlemites voiced their experiences of and opposition to racist policing. The document produced by the committee was deeply critical of the La Guardia administration's treatment of Black New Yorkers and was quashed by the administration. It was only made public when the Amsterdam News published it in the newspaper.
Though there were many powerful forms of resistance during these years, it was extremely difficult, particularly in the militarized context of the war when policing the city was framed as an issue of national security, to win any accountability, reduction in surveillance, or changes to police practices.
Where can we see the consequences of World War II–era policing in today's New York?
I see this moment as the origin story of our current policing model. This was the moment when the idea of a professional, nonpartisan, mixed-gender, multiracial police department, charged with intense surveillance and harassment of Black, interracial, and working-class communities and youth as a supposed means of crime prevention, first became dominant. The core of the department's project can be traced back to this era.
In the years since the 1930s, the NYPD has become even more dominant in the city—it has roughly doubled in size when the population has increased by only about 13 percent—while the New Deal social spending that created public goods and services during the 1930s and 1940s has atrophied. Looking at the role that policing and criminalization played in constructing notions of who did not deserve access to these public goods or to public space helps us understand the exclusions in the liberal New Deal vision, as well as the ways that this vision has been undermined in the years since.
There is absolutely a connection between stop-and-frisk and Valentine and La Guardia's campaigns against disorder and moral laws violations. Those campaigns were all about surveilling and targeting criminalized New Yorkers to supposedly prevent crime. NYPD officers were directed to see these New Yorkers as criminals because of their identities, rather than because they violated any laws, and intrusions into the rights of these criminalized residents was of little concern to City or NYPD leadership.
Even though stop-and-frisk was deemed unconstitutional ten years ago, this logic continues to undergird policing under Mayor Eric Adams. His recent Mayor's Management Report shows that in his first year of office, quality of life summonses increased 100 percent from the previous year and in 90 percent of instances where the race of the ticketed person was noted, they were Black or Hispanic. Stop-and-frisk relies on the same logic of surveilling and harassing youth of color as a supposed crime prevention policy, because their identity is criminalized by the NYPD.
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