Book excerpt: How Fiorello La Guardia changed the NYPD

As New York City threw off the shackles of Tammany Hall and Mayor Jimmy Walker resigned in 1932, it was Fiorello La Guardia who stepped into office in 1934 intent on cleaning up the mess. One of his most important accomplishments – which is examined in “Gotham’s War within a War” – was professionalizing the New York City Police Department to then rid the city of crime, including cracking down on moral crimes. What follows from the book, which publishes on Oct. 31 by The University of North Carolina Press, is a shortened and slightly changed standalone version of the introduction.

Excerpt adapted from Gotham’s War within a War: Policing and the Birth of Law-and-Order Liberalism in World War II–Era New York City by Emily Brooks © 2023 with permission from The University of North Carolina Press

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Energetic, progressive, and irascible, Fiorello La Guardia barreled into office in 1934 with a new vision for how city government could function and the role of the police department within city life. Despite his short stature, La Guardia casts a long shadow over New York City’s history. One of the most modern, enduring, and problematic aspects of his administration was his approach to policing and crime. Police reform was central to La Guardia’s larger urban vision, and his politics were formative to liberal visions of policing more broadly – in New York, across the United States, and beyond.

New York City’s most famous reform mayor, La Guardia, came into power in 1934 on the heels of a city-hall-shattering corruption investigation that called into question many long-held truths about how the city government should run.

The Tammany Democratic faction that was discredited in these investigations had controlled city politics for much of the previous eighty years. Tammany mayors relied on NYPD officers to grant favors, protect allies, punish opponents, and improve the Democratic faction’s chances at the ballot when overseeing elections. Additionally, police department appointments were granted to low-level party members, who then extorted bribes or kickbacks from proprietors working in the underground economy, many of which then flowed upstream to powerful Tammany players.

After a brief experiment with another commissioner, La Guardia tapped Lewis Valentine to bring his vision to life. The pair believed that police corruption and permissive approaches to crimes of vice or morality that included prostitution (as sex work was known), juvenile delinquency, gambling, and disorderly conduct were the primary problems with policing in New York. La Guardia, Valentine, and their supporters contended that these crimes “endanger(ed) public morality” and proved “a disgrace to the people of the City of New York,” while also enabling police corruption through payoffs and extortion.

Following their assumption of office, La Guardia and Valentine crafted a new model of liberal law-and-order policing. Rejecting the machine patronage system that their administration had replaced, the duo divorced the police department from partisan politics. “Police work is now a profession,” La Guardia informed NYPD members, in which officers were “given a chance to do good work without political or any other kind of interference.” Professional officers were expected to enforce the law aggressively and uniformly to all city residents alike – to remain unswayed by partisan allegiance or bribes.

Valentine and La Guardia – or the Little Flower, as he was sometimes known, based on the English translation of his first name – also positioned the NYPD as committed to hiring officers and policing the city without regard to racial hierarchy. Valentine proclaimed to the New York Urban League, an organization devoted to Black advancement, that his office was “willing and eager to work with any groups in the community willing to assist him in recruiting (Black) candidates for the police force with the necessary physical and mental equipment for the work.” As this quotation suggests, however, racist ideas about the capabilities of Black people and associations between criminality and Black communities structured policing under Valentine and La Guardia. The leaders interwove these racist conceptions with ideas about gender, sexuality, class, and morality and packaged them together under the concepts of “order” and “security.”

Establishing an orderly and safe city was important to the administrators for a number of different reasons, one of which involved the city government’s relationship to finance and investment. Though an avid fighter for the city’s public sphere, La Guardia had a keen awareness of the role that actual and metaphorical investment in the city from finance and business could play in its governance. On his first day in office, he set about trying to close the city’s budget deficit to restore the value of municipal bonds. For La Guardia, however, the more important justification behind his commitment to expanding police power was the improvement he believed it would bring to the public lives of New Yorkers. To the mayor and his police commissioner, sex workers, juvenile delinquents, gamblers, and disorderly persons were impediments to equitable access to public space and public resources. What their ideology overlooked, however, was the way that these criminal categories, whose definitions were entirely reliant on social hierarchies, created their own landscape of inequality.

New York City’s changing racial demographics were central to the mayor and police commissioner’s view of crime and order. From 1930 to 1950 the city’s Black population more than doubled and grew from 4.7 percent to 9 percent of the city’s total population. These new residents came from the American South and, to a lesser extent, from the Caribbean. The city’s Puerto Rican population had also increased during the 1920s following the severe restriction of immigration from Europe. Though migration decreased significantly during the war, about 61,500 Puerto Ricans called New York City home in 1940. The city’s white officials, and many white Gothamites, viewed the new residents with extreme unease. Signs stating “No Dogs, No Negroes, and No Spanish” marked apartment buildings and advertised the city’s racial hierarchy.

La Guardia and Valentine worked to establish their vision of order and security throughout the 1930s, but met with resistance from the city’s growing Black population, led by Black women, as well as from other criminalized groups including working-class women across races and young people. The mobilization for World War II shifted the terrain of this municipal contest; offenses previously categorized as challenges to urban order became threats to national security.

During the mobilization, the prevention of Black uprisings or labor unrest and the preservation of the health and morality of enlisted white men who traveled through the city became even sharper priorities for the municipal leaders. In a landscape of an expanded and militarized state and constricted space for civil liberties, La Guardia and Valentine were able to fully realize a policing regime of municipal law-and-order liberalism that they had been pushing since 1934. As the mayor declared in the fall of 1940, he had “the heat turned on gambling and vice for some time, [and] this was no time to let down.”

Gotham, the duo knew, would play a central role in shipping out men and supplies were the United States to enter the conflict. La Guardia worried that the city’s role in transportation networks and its cultural significance would render it a possible target for air strikes or submarine attacks, despite its geographic protections and the fuel limitations of existing bombers. While such an external attack proved a slim possibility, Valentine and La Guardia knew well the internal threats that certainly lurked on the city’s streets and in its harbors, bars, and theaters. On the eve of war, they redoubled their campaigns against such evils as juvenile delinquency, prostitution, gambling, and disorderly entertainment; this time with the protection of enlisted soldiers and sailors, wartime peace in the city, and national security in mind.

The increased importance of such efforts during the war, the municipal leaders argued, required the reorganization and expansion of the NYPD’s anti-vice efforts, which now were an essential component of national security. They formed an auxiliary police force of over 7,000, raised the quotas for women in the NYPD, created a new National Defense Squad to suppress vice, organized community groups to monitor youth, and tried to prevent patrolmen from retiring during the war. The pair would also consistently link the civic sacrifices of soldiers and sailors to those of patrolmen, seeking to build connections between policing in New York City and the national war mobilization. In their efforts, Valentine and La Guardia would receive assistance from the city’s Health Department, state and federal agencies, and the military, all of whom participated in shaping the policing landscape of wartime New York City.

So-called vice or morals law policing proved particularly reflective of political shifts like the mobilization for war. This police activity was usually driven solely by law enforcement policy and discretion, rather than initiated by a civilian complainant. The legal and policy definitions of vice crimes or offenses purported to describe behavior, but were so general that they relied heavily on police discretion and surveillance of people with criminalized identities. “General Instructions for Plainclothesmen” in the NYPD’s 1940 manual noted, “Testimony given by an arresting officer that he had a female defendant under observation for ten or fifteen minutes; that during that time she covered but a short space of ground; that she spoke to or endeavored to attract the attention of several men, and that the police officer knew her to be a prostitute, will warrant a conviction.”

Further, we can see that gender and sexuality, along with race and class, were central to how police understood and interpreted the criminal categories that La Guardia and Valentine encouraged them to enforce with new vigor. The mobilization for World War II heightened the gendered divisions of citizenship and the role of gender in policing New York City. When NYPD officers policed for juvenile delinquency, gambling, and disorderly conduct, Valentine and La Guardia directed them to similarly use visual markers of race, class, and sexuality and consider them in conjunction with the city’s geography to make judgments about criminality.

La Guardia and Valentine’s new paradigm for policing did not escape local criticism and resistance. Their tenure was, in fact, bookended by two mass uprisings in Harlem driven partly by frustration with racist policing. Through the 1930s and 1940s, Black New Yorkers, youth, and working-class women across races individually and collectively resisted the heightened surveillance and criminalization that the mayor and police commissioner sought to introduce. During these years, ending racially targeted police brutality and harassment was a central civil rights demand for both newly arrived and long-established Black New Yorkers. When the federal Office of Facts and Figures interviewed over 1,000 Black residents in New York about their opinions on the war and their status in American life in spring 1942, only 2 percent answered “police” when asked, “Who would a Negro go to around here if he couldn’t get his rights?” For comparison, “Nobody – Cynical ‘Who, indeed?’” was the response from 4 percent of respondents. Women in Harlem, led by activists like novelist and reporter Ann Petry, criticized police practices that they felt labeled Black women as prostitutes and boycotted newspapers that disseminated these stereotypes. Incarcerated women petitioned city magistrates for retrials, calling their indefinite detention unjust. Young girls launched a daring nighttime escape from a Brooklyn reformatory. Burlesque performers picketed city hall after La Guardia’s commissioner of licenses shuttered their theaters. Parents complained of the treatment their children met at the hands of NYPD officers. In many of these instances of resistance, New Yorkers connected their criticism to the ongoing war being fought in the name of democracy and freedom. When faced with police repression, they asked, in the words of one Long Island father, “Is this the freedom we are all working so hard for?”

These protests did not fall on sympathetic ears. The city’s leadership prioritized maintaining urban order and protecting the health and security of enlisted men, particularly white enlisted men, over respecting the civil, social, and sexual liberties of New Yorkers. Furthermore, the space for criticism of NYPD policies narrowed in the wartime political landscape. Politicians at the local and national levels, as well as many New Yorkers, adopted a framework of coercive patriotism in which any challenge to state authorities or the war mobilization was selfish, dangerous, and anti-American. This perspective justified heightened surveillance and criminalization of sexually profiled women and girls, who were depicted as venereal disease carriers; led La Guardia to send letters to men deferred from military service telling them that they needed to volunteer for the city’s new auxiliary policing agency or face the possible revocation of their deferral; drove neighbors to inform on each other for supposedly inappropriate use of resources or gambling practices; and broadly led to increased surveillance and criminalization of targeted populations throughout the city.

New York City was not just any urban landscape. It was and remains the nation’s largest city, as well as a cultural and financial center. As the head of the recently formed U.S. Conference of Mayors for almost his entire eleven years in office, the leader of the largest city in the country, and a well-known former congressional representative with sway in Washington, La Guardia exerted influence beyond New York City’s five boroughs. Valentine was also a nationally recognized leader. His savvy awareness of the city’s racial politics and his strain of seemingly unbiased yet harsh anti-vice policing distinguished him from many of his counterparts. When the governor of Maryland wanted to integrate the Baltimore Police Department in 1938, he looked to New York. Unlike the police commissioner of Detroit, Valentine was celebrated for the way the NYPD handled an uprising in Harlem in 1943, even in some of the city’s African American papers. When General Douglas MacArthur sought a law enforcement expert to oversee the reorganization of the police force in occupied Japan, he requested Valentine “by name.” By the end of the war, there was no better representative of American municipal policing than the NYPD’s Lewis Valentine, and other cities sought to follow his lead.

La Guardia and Valentine’s moralistic onslaught reverberated through the wartime life of the city. These campaigns curtailed the civil, social, and sexual liberties of New Yorkers, particularly Black and Puerto Rican women, men, and children; working-class women of all races; and young people. During the mass mobilization of the war, the preservation of internal social hierarchies gained new momentum and urgency. The conjoined processes of policing the city and mobilizing the nation for war became visible in the NYPD’s “war within a war” against juvenile delinquency, prostitution, gambling, and urban disorder.

In mid-twenty-first-century urban life in the United States, the approach to policing embraced by Valentine and La Guardia is so widespread among Democratic municipal administrators as to appear almost hegemonic. In major cities across the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, and Philadelphia, Democratic mayors responded to recent increases in crime ranging from slight to significant by calling for bigger budgets for police departments and more officers on the streets. While these politicians sometimes reference exploding inequality and the societal breakdown and mass death experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic when discussing crime, their proposals center on policing as the primary solution. Despite mass protests on a historic scale against police brutality and for racial justice in cities across the country throughout the summer of 2020 in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, municipal leaders have, almost without exception, raised the budgets of police departments, while also making statements about their commitments to racial equality. Contemporary Democratic mayors tend to frame policing as a means of protecting the rights of “innocent” urbanites even as they propose policies that violate the rights of many city dwellers, usually working-class Black and Brown residents.

This dominant Democratic framework emerged in 1930s and 1940s New York City. At the heart of the liberal law-and-order framework lies a belief that professional police officers, uninfluenced by partisan politics, can enforce discriminatory conceptions of order in an equitable fashion. Law-and-order liberalism relies on a fiction that unbiased discretionary police power can craft an orderly and equitable city in a deeply unequal society. The history of La Guardia and Valentine’s administration demonstrates that this vision has been flawed from its inception.

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