Detective Lt. Joseph Petrosino, the first commander of the Italian Squad, left, with two New York City police detectives, escorting 1903 murder suspect Tomasso "The Ox" Petto, second from left. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Americans’ confidence in police has fallen dramatically since the 2020 murder of George Floyd, with nearly 60 percent of Americans indicating they are not confident officers can treat Black and White people equally. But during the same period, voters have elected candidates who have promised to expand police forces and adopt tactics seen as discriminatory and ineffective.

Cherelle Parker, likely the next mayor of Philadelphia, for example, has proposed resuming stop-and-frisk policing. And New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former police officer, has pushed for a more aggressive form of policing—akin to practices of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Paul Moses, a professor emeritus at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, began researching his latest book, The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia (NYU Press), which recounts a New York City police unit of Italian immigrants tasked with rooting out crime within their own ethnic community, in 2015—less than a year after the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, by a White police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

“You know, policing is a very controversial thing to write about because readers are going to see it through the lens of what they know today,” says Moses, a former Newsday reporter and editor and author of An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). “So the solution was to try to be as accurate as I could. I just wanted to tell the reader what I think really happened. And what really happened works out to be good and bad.” 

In his research, Moses sifted through dozens of newspaper articles—including those in the City Recorddigitized by NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering—and other documents in chronicling this early 20th-century unit.

Cover of "The Italian Squad"

“(T)here was…a law-enforcement need for some kind of unit that would investigate crimes in Italian immigrant neighborhoods,” Moses writes. “(T)he larger Police Department didn’t show the ability or even inclination to do so.”

“I think one of the most interesting aspects of the story is just that these detectives were the people in the middle,” he says. “They were constantly trying to explain the Italians to the Police Department and explain the Police Department to the Italians. There was a great deal of distrust. So for me, it highlights the importance of having a really good relationship between police and community. It’s certainly at the root of a lot of problems now in policing.”

NYU News spoke with Moses about the Italian Squad’s rise and demise—and how its history is instructive at a time when policing is drawing both scrutiny and support.   

At first glance, a police unit formed to address crime stemming from a single ethnic community may seem little different from the racial profiling that occurred in New York City during the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations. Was it?

I would say it’s a bit different because, first of all, this unit started with the Italian community calling for it—the merchants, bankers, anybody who was modestly successful felt threatened by a wave of extortion and bombings that were going on. So that and pressure from the newspapers, which really exaggerated Italian crime, led the police commissioner, William McAdoo, in 1904 to set up a small unit of Italian-born detectives headed by Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino. Later on in the Italian community, some of the same people who called for the squad to be created became more sensitive to the question of why there is an Italian squad and not a squad named for any other ethnic group. And so they then came to oppose its existence. They didn’t dislike the detectives. In fact, people in the Italian community were generally proud of these police officers’ work.

I would distinguish the Italian Squad from what happened during the Giuliani administration and the Bloomberg administration in that the strength of the Italian Squad was that the officers were connected to the community. They knew the people. They were not just rounding up every Italian in sight.

I happen to have been a reporter in City Hall for part of the Giuliani administration so I saw a lot of this up close. The first two years under Bill Bratton, Giuliani’s first police commissioner, I thought what they were doing was working pretty well because they still had officers in place who knew the community through Mayor Dinkins’ community policing program. Giuliani then brought in a federal official, Howard Safir, who took more of a task-force approach. These cops didn’t know the neighborhood very well and were broadly carrying out operations for stop and frisk. And I think that’s where a lot of the problems arose from racial profiling.

At the root of a lot of problems now in policing is how to win over the bulk of the community—to cooperate with the police and to see the police as an ally and not an enemy. That to me was key to what the Italian squad did, and I think it’s probably very important to policing in our own time.

Could organized crime, which flourished for much of the 20th century, have been curtailed if the Italian Squad was bolstered and allowed to continue beyond the 1920s?

With the coming of Prohibition in 1920, I don’t know that anybody could have stopped Italian organized crime from becoming big and organized at that time. But the Police Department shut down the Italian squad in 1922, early on in Prohibition, and I think it really hampered whatever efforts they might have made to break up what later became large criminal organizations we call “crime families.” That’s when they were really taking shape—out of ancestors who had existed for the previous couple of decades. So I think that the Italian Squad could have somewhat blunted it, but I don’t think it could have stopped it at that point given other limitations it faced. In the book, I talk about some of the law-enforcement methods that came into effect later on—like the federal racketeering law in 1970. The Italian Squad could have really used a law like that to break up the larger criminal organizations as they were forming at the time.

You recount the 1937 observations of a New York police reporter: “A police department can never be better than the City Hall. Nor can a police chief ever be better than the mayor who sits in that City Hall.” New York City now has a mayor who was a police officer. Is this unwritten rule, which was evident during the Giuliani administration, still in effect today?

It was a pretty good observation. It certainly applied to the period that I wrote about. And I do think it continues today. One of the things that I noticed in researching the book was how much these Italian immigrant detectives depended on the political structure around them. And it was constantly changing. As a result, what they could do or not do dramatically changed all the time.

In the last years of the squad, they should have been focused on what became the future crime families rather than rounding up everybody who had a radical political opinion. That was the time of the first Red Scare, which led to broad crackdowns on communists and anarchists that were determined by the Italian Squad’s bosses.

Giuliani was not the first mayor to get very involved in nitty gritty policing matters. You can look at the correspondence of a lot of these other mayors and see that some of them during the period the Italian Squad operated also were very involved in what was going on—and not always in a good way. It wasn’t just a matter of setting overall policy.

Speaking of past mayors, you chronicle efforts by New York City Mayor William Gaynor (1910-1913) to address police misconduct. Are there lessons from his tenure that could be useful today when it comes to police reform?

Mayor Gaynor is really a mayor worth remembering. He was a crusty old judge from Brooklyn who had a very strong record in favor of civil liberties. In fact, I can’t think of another principled civil libertarian who rose to such a high elected office. He was very disturbed by unnecessary arrests and police brutality. And he was really focused on stopping it. So he would get complaints from the public, investigate them himself, call the officers in, and then follow up and make sure the police commissioner did something about it.

Can he give us lessons for today? I think so. But he did not work very well with the police department. He had a commissioner, James Cropsey, who was really very aggressive in enforcing disciplinary rules and would hold hearings in which he belittled the officers. So Gaynor didn’t manage to bring the police department as a whole along with him, and that’s part of the lesson, too.

But I do think Gaynor is really worth looking back on. He’s remembered today mainly as a mayor who was shot while he was in office—shot in the throat—and that bullet never left him for the remaining time he had to live. There is a memorial to him in Brooklyn on Cadman Plaza, but you don’t really ever see anything about him. He had a very interesting career. He rose up through politics in what were then towns that were not part of Brooklyn—Gravesend and Flatbush—and challenged these really tyrannical political bosses that ran those places. So he was a true maverick, and he was the kind of person who could have possibly been president if he had lived.

You write about newspapers’ often sensational reporting on New York’s early 20th-century crime waves. Do you see similarities in how news coverage influences public perceptions of crime and safety today?

Unfortunately, I do. I spent 23 years in daily journalism—about 20 of those years in New York—and it was a little disturbing to see how some of the coverage back in the day was so off the mark.

In the early 20th century, the time period I write about, a lot of the Italian crime was called the “Black Hand.” And that comes out of an incident in 1903 in Brooklyn, where some shakedown gang had written a letter to a contractor who was their target and dreamed up the idea of signing it from the Black Hand—the “Mano Nera”—and put a little black hand with a dagger on the letter.

But there was no sinister, giant organization called the Black Hand. This was made up. But the papers loved it and had all these splashy layouts with daggers and stuff like that. And so after that, everybody who wanted to do a shakedown became the Black Hand. But in the papers, it was always linked to the Mafia or to the Camorra. And the Italian Squad detectives would keep trying to tell the reporters, “No, no, no, that’s not what's going on.” So it kind of got blown out of proportion.

And I think today the tabloids—as weak as they are in their current condition—still have an influence on New Yorkers. I think a lot of the battle that’s going on over the bail laws is driven by judges’ fear and prosecutors’ fear that somebody will be released on bail and commit a crime and then they’ll be questioned about whether they asked for a high enough bail. And, of course, the purpose of bail is not to punish, but to secure somebody’s presence for trial. So I think that whole issue of bail reform is media-driven, and it’s probably the hottest criminal justice issue in the city at the moment.

A front-page story in the Jan. 24, 1921 edition of the New York Tribune. Prepared on behalf of Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

A front-page story in the Jan. 24, 1921 edition of the New York Tribune. Prepared on behalf of the Library of Congress.

So, from your perspective, has the task of a journalist covering crime and policing in New York City changed much over the past century? 

Well, the dynamics are very similar. When I was a reporter in City Hall, I knew I was filling seats that had been filled for a hundred years—that those reporters were doing what I was doing. I could feel that through the lines of the stories that I was researching. Reading between the lines, I could figure out which newspapers had sources into the Italian Squad and which detectives they were getting information from. So I knew that the Brooklyn Eagle often reflected the point of view of the commander who had led the Brooklyn unit of the Italian Squad, Anthony Vachris. And I felt they were reporting accurately on what was going on, even when Vachris wasn't allowed to be quoted. They would have the story that was his story.

I would say not a great deal has changed in that way. We have a different media scene now technologically, but the underlying dynamic of reporters challenging the mayor and the police commissioner is pretty similar.