Italian American have deep roots in the police departments all over certain major cities in the U.S especially in New York. Considering the discrimination of the Irish immigrants at one time in the country, it is really quite amazing how Italian Americans have such a prolific history of law enforcement.

The stereotypical idea of an Italian immigrant was twofold, one as a rather uneducated peasant and the other, far more sinister, as a thug or crook involved in organized crime.

At one time in New York there were high tensions between the NYC Police Department and the Italian immigrant community, so how did all this change?

Documented in periodicals of the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century are plenty of cases of mistrust between the police department and the relatively minority Italian immigrant community. The newspapers relayed stories of trouble in New York, Ferguson and other places.

The Italians Point of View

The Italian immigrants believed that not only did the police department fail to give adequate protection of their community, they actually targeted it. And to expand on this further, they thought that the criminal prosecution was prejudiced against them.

For instance, it was almost common for police chief’s trying to solve a murder or some other crime was to issue orders to round up the usual suspects, which would often include Italian looking tramps and vagrants.

Gino Speranza

In fact, this was so commonplace that an Italian American journalist Gino Speranza in 1904 noted in print, A number of lawyers, when assigned by the Court to defend Italians, induce their clients, if they do not force them, to plead guilty.

The Solution

A solution to this really large problem was to deliberately create a more diverse police department and criminal justice system. Italians were, for the first time, actually targeted to become community leaders and policemen. Unbelievably to the Italian community at the time, this also included higher positions (like judges and so on).

The Police Department’s Point of View

Not surprisingly did the NYC Police Department take offense to these accusations, in their mind Italians were highly uncooperative and some had violent tendencies. The police honestly believed that there was nothing wrong with the existing justice system, the problem was the Italian community.

The New York Times even commented on the situation at the time, alluding to the fact that national loyalty between the Italians gives the perpetrators an ability to hide behind their countrymen. There was now a standoff between the New York Police Department and the Italian community, which was exacerbated when an Italian saloonkeeper shot an Irish American police officer in East Harlem.

The incident happened over a fairly minor infraction by the saloonkeeper for selling alcohol on a Sunday. After the arrest, a huge mob surrounded the police station trying to punish the saloonkeeper themselves, further trouble was expected at the arraignment, but many Italians from East Harlem took to the streets to support of the police and diffused the situation. We continue our history of the Italian roots of the New York Police Department in part two of this blog.