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The NYPD’s Sordid History Chronicled in New Report

Issue 280

The Police Reform Organizing Project provides a detailed summary of the NYPD’s nefarious ways from its founding in 1845 to the present day.

Theodore Hamm May 10, 2023

The ongoing violent crackdown on Jordan Neely protests by the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group (SRG) comes as no surprise. Despite its blatant, costly misconduct during the 2020 George Floyd protests, the “elite unit” has evaded scrutiny, with NYPD officials skipping a City Council oversight hearing in March. 

Meanwhile, NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell has made a mockery of the Civilian Complaint Review Board disciplinary process for NYPD officers found guilty of misconduct. 

While earnest liberals may seek to improve the “professionalism” of cops, via measures including better salaries and improved training, a new report shows that if history is any guide, such initiatives will do little to alter the direction of the NYPD. It remains an entity that defies accountability. 

Released last week by the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), “The Notorious and True History of NYC’s Finest” reviews the history of the NYPD from its origins in the mid-19th century through the present. The report culls from the work from a wide array of scholars, including Marilynn S. Johnson, Clarence Taylor and Jules Stewart.

The authors of the report hope to debunk the sanctified place the NYPD has in New York City politics. 

“Notorious” examines the role of the NYPD in regulating and enforcing the city’s social order since the Civil War era. Initially, that meant cracking down on the city’s burgeoning ranks of the Irish immigrant poor. Yet by the end of the Civil War, the NYPD had already become a stronghold of Irish career advancement. 

During the Gilded Age heyday of Tammany Hall, corruption flourished in the city, and the NYPD was no stranger to it. In the mid-1890s, a report commissioned by Republican state senators documented “police involvement in extortion, bribery, counterfeiting, voter intimidation, election fraud, brutality and scams.” In response, Theodore Roosevelt, a member of what was then the board of police commissioners, helped raise the qualifications required to join the force. 

One of the many valuable contributions of “Notorious” is that it sheds light on lesser-known events spurred by police-initiated hostilities, including the Tenderloin Riot of 1900 and the San Juan Hill Riot of 1905. Now Herald Square, the Tenderloin was a Black neighborhood at the time. After a white undercover cop accused his girlfriend of prostitution, a Black man named Arthur Harris stabbed the officer to death, causing a three-day wave of violent reprisals by the NYPD. 

As Harlem’s Black population grew rapidly over the next few decades, so did tensions between cops and local residents, sparking riots in 1935, 1943 and 1964. Reports of police brutality and lawsuit settlements with the city regularly appeared in the Amsterdam News. The NYPD’s Red Squad infiltrated Malcolm X’s inner circle and the local chapter of the Black Panthers. 

Police repression of the city’s LGBTQ+ community sparked the Stonewall uprising of 1969.  Five days of protests brought thousands of people onto the streets of Greenwich Village, leading to the initial Gay Pride parade one year later. The corrupt, violent culture of the NYPD soon came under the microscope. 

In response to the revelations of widespread police misconduct by Officer Frank Serpico, Mayor John Lindsay appointed the Knapp Commission in April 1970. High-profile hearings featured an array of whistleblower cops and city residents, who outlined a range of shake-down schemes that targeted bodegas, drug-dealers and pimps. Reform-oriented NYPD Commissioner Patrick Murphy vowed to “clean up” the department, implementing integrity checks and cracking down on bribery.  

“Notorious” then jumps ahead to the City Hall Police Riot of 1992, when cops — egged on by Rudy Giuliani, who had lost to David Dinkins in the 1989 mayoral race — stomped on cars and stormed City Hall. They were upset that Dinkins had followed through on his campaign pledge to create a civilian-controlled CCRB (previously it was housed within the NYPD). Giuliani’s allegiance to the NYPD remained steadfast throughout his two terms as mayor. 

While in office, Dinkins responded to a major NYPD corruption scandal by creating the Mollen Commission. Officers in five precincts (two each in Manhattan and Brooklyn, along with one in the Bronx) had been brutalizing local residents. Bernie Cawley, a Bronx patrolman, told the commission that he deployed lead-loaded gloves, a flashlight and/or a nightstick over 400 times. 

Panel discussion of PROP report at St. Mary’s Church in Harlem on Apr. 23. Panelists are Stanley Fritz of Citizen Action NY, Brooklyn College Prof. Alex Vitale and Keli Young of VOCAL-NY. 

Bill Bratton, Giuliani’s first commissioner, vowed to implement reforms recommended by the Mollen Commission, but little changed. “Proactive policing” methods such as Bratton’s broken windows and Ray Kelly’s stop and frisk furthered the hostile relationship between cops and young men of color.  

After a sustained legal campaign driven by the Center for Constitutional Rights, in 2012 Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled the department’s widespread stop and frisk practice to be unconstitutional. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly fought back hard, arguing that the proactive approach reduced crime in minority neighborhoods. Bill de Blasio made ending “the stop-and-frisk era” a central plank in his successful 2013 run.

De Blasio, however, antagonized criminal-justice activists by naming Bratton as his first police commissioner, thus reviving the controversies surrounding broken windows. The final chapters of “Notorious” review the major events of the last decade, from the Eric Garner saga through the George Floyd protests. PROP’s own court monitoring steadily finds that nearly 90% of the NYPD’s current arrests involve people of color. 

The immediate aim of “Notorious” is “to debunk the sanctified place that the NYPD occupies in NYC’s political landscape, despite its long track record of racist and abusive practices,” says Bob Gangi, founder of PROP. “Our ultimate goal is admittedly very ambitious: for this document to become an active part of a civil rights movement that transforms New York into a city that provides a just, safe and inclusive living experience for all people.”

Given that a former cop who answers to the NY Post currently runs City Hall, the NYPD’s sanctified place seems secure for now. As “Notorious” shows, any meaningful changes in police practices will arise only from external pressure, not from within the department itself. 

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