The Politics of Safety: The Black Struggle for Police Accountability in La Guardia’s New York by Shannon King is now available wherever books are sold. The following is an excerpt from
Throughout the mid- to late 1920s, as a result of widespread corruption in the criminal justice system, the problem of “lawless law enforcement” loomed large across the nation, especially New York City. Because of the growth of the Prohibition state, especially the administration and enforcement of dry laws, police abuse and corruption fomented considerable discussions among public officials, police and lawyer associations, criminologists, and others. These debates interrogating the role of politics and police discretion were a continuation of related concerns raised decades before, especially during the Progressive era. Inspired by Rev. Dr. Charles H. Pankhurst’s condemnation of the spread of vice in midtown Manhattan and the New York police force’s complicity in it in 1892, the New York State Senate created the Lexow Committee, named after state senator Clarence Lexow in 1894. The Lexow Committee emerged, in part, because of the expansion of the Republican Party’s power and the decline of the Democratic Party’s electoral gains after the 1893 depression. With the support of the Republican-controlled state legislature and the city’s Chamber of Commerce, Pankhurst’s campaign against Tammany Hall, the city’s powerful Democrat-controlled political machine, exposed the depths of police corruption, though it had minimal impact on police reform. The political organization, Society of St. Tammany, was founded in 1786 and incorporated in 1789. Tammany Hall was a decentralized political organization, operated by ward captains, and its ties to graft and collusion extended through government, business, and culture. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Tammany’s power, like other political machines, was vested in the millions of European immigrants coming into the city seeking employment, social welfare, and economic security, and the machine effectively fulfilled these needs.
The NYPD’s power developed from its relationship with the political machine. The city’s police force not only protected the machine’s voters and repressed its adversaries during elections but also licensed and often facilitated the criminal activity of Tammany’s associates across the city’s institutional life. As urban historian Robert Fogel has described them, “big-city police” departments “operated mainly as adjuncts of the ward organizations.” Because police power was decentralized, dependent mainly on the captain and ward boss, the patrolman on the beat had considerable autonomy. With the license to use force to subdue a would-be perpetrator, the police had the authority to define crime and, therefore, determine whom to detain, arrest, and criminalize. Within the confines of the machine, as Fogel notes, “the police decided whether or not to permit agitators to speak, protestors to march, and laborers to picket, and if so, judged whether or not the protests remained orderly. They also determined whether or not to intervene in racial, ethnic, and religious clashes, and if so, at what point, on whose side, with how many men, and with how much force.” Consequently, autonomous police discretion was principally the authority to criminalize and punish according to the officers’ personal, political, religious, ethnic, gender, and racial biases. Policing and police, therefore, were embedded in the city’s racial order. Racial difference as much as law and order dictated how the police enforced the law.
With the license to use force to subdue a would-be perpetrator, the police had the authority to define crime and, therefore, determine whom to detain, arrest, and criminalize.
On August 12, 1900, Robert Thorpe, a plainclothes policeman, manhandled May Enoch, a Black woman, on Forty-First Street and Eighth Avenue. Acting on the premise that a Black woman on the street at that time of the night was a sex worker, Thorpe attempted to arrest her as Arthur Harris, her common-law husband, jumped to restrain Thorpe. In the physical exchange, Harris fatally stabbed him, precipitating the New York Race Riot of 1900 three days later. White mobs attacked Black pedestrians and the Black neighborhood, mainly between Thirty-Fourth and Forty-Second Streets on Broadway and Seventh and Eighth Avenues. But white civilians were not alone. This episode of white anti-Black violence was also a police riot. As Frank Moss, attorney and compiler of the pamphlet The Story of the Riot, stated, “In many instances of brutality by the mob policemen stood by and made no effort to protect the Negroes who were assailed. They ran with the crowds in pursuit of their prey; they took defenseless men who ran to them for protection and threw them to the rioters.”
During the four-hour riot, the police’s appetite for revenge spared not men, women, or children. A police officer told Rosa Lewis, her husband, and other tenants to go into their apartment building, 332 West Thirty-Seventh Street. She explained that all followed his order, but as she reached the foot of the staircase, “the officer, who had rushed into the hallway, struck me over the back with his club.” Irene Wells, 239 West Twenty-Ninth Street, was treated similarly by an officer who struck her across her right hip, as she tried to take her three children into the apartment building. The police also beat Blacks in their custody. At about two in the morning, six policemen charged into John Hains’s apartment and accused him of shooting a gun from the window. He stated, “They found an old toy revolver, which was broken and not loaded, and could not shoot if it had been loaded, and said that that was the pistol I had used.” Arrested, Hains was “struck by one of the officers in the station house in front of the sergeant’s desk, and in his presence, without any interference on his part.” The same police officer who beat him charged Hains before the judge, and Hains pleaded innocent. The judge sentenced him to spend six months in the penitentiary, and he was sent to Blackwell’s Island (Roosevelt Island) and released ten days later on August 25.
Autonomous police discretion was principally the authority to criminalize and punish according to the officers’ personal, political, religious, ethnic, gender, and racial biases. Policing and police, therefore, were embedded in the city’s racial order.
After appealing to and unsuccessfully receiving any support from public officials, the Black community formed the Citizens Protection League (CPL) and pursued justice in the courts where none was found. Black citizens obtained lawyers, and Black leaders such as W. H. Brooks requested Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck to investigate the riot. The mayor stalled until the acting mayor asked the police board to investigate the role of the police force in the melee. Like Van Wyck, the commissioners “delayed, knowing full well how such cases deteriorate by delay, and after several weeks announced that they would investigate.” Moss, the CPL’s attorney, judged that the “ ‘investigation’ was a palpable sham.” Despite the outcome, the police board, the courts, and the mayor all eventually fulfilled the official and legal procedures required of them. The city’s criminal legal system worked—just not for its Black citizens. Black New Yorkers, customarily overpoliced and underprotected, understood and pointed out the variance between the responsibilities of the police and their behavior. As the 1900 race riot demonstrated, police power was entangled in the city’s criminal legal system. Political corruption and anti-Black violence worked hand-in-hand. Gotham’s criminal legal system protected the discretion of police to use lethal force to repress Black citizens at all levels of law enforcement. With the authority to define crime and with the support of public officials, police officers on the beat administered racial violence on Black New Yorkers without recourse. Although Gotham City tolerated anti-Black police violence, police discretion to use excessive force did not go unchallenged.
Shannon King is associate professor of history at Fairfield University.