When NYC Invented Modern Policing: Emily Brooks on WWII–Era Surveillance and Discrimination

From the 1880s to the 1940s, New York City was transformed—and so too was the New York City Police Department. This is the first of two interviews—published in collaboration with Gotham: A Blog for Scholars of New York City History—where Matthew Guariglia and Emily Brooks discuss this pivotal era, through their exciting new books on the NYPD. The second interview was published on Gotham. You can read it here.
“I often think how much better off we would be if there were more free recreational activities for youth that were not nested under the carceral sphere.”

In Gotham’s War within a War: Policing and the Birth of Law-and-Order Liberalism in World War II–Era New York City, historian Emily Brooks explores the emergence of a new model of racist and sexist policing under reform Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and considers how the militarization of the US home front during World War II intensified these dynamics. In the following interview she discusses her book and the process of writing it with historian Matthew Guariglia, whose new book Police and the Empire City considers similar themes of racialized policing and US empire in the progressive era.

Matthew Guariglia (MG): You make it abundantly clear from your introduction why you wanted to write about New York and why this is a specifically New York story, but you don’t say how you landed on writing about the World War II period.

Was it a primary source? Did you have a hunch that this was going to be the moment that an oppressive liberal mode of law and order was really going to crystallize?


Emily Brooks (EB): I was not initially planning to write a World War II history. The earliest stages of this project began when I was reading histories about racist and racialized ways that women were policed in northern cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The vast majority of these books ended in the early 1930s at the latest, and I wanted to know where the story went next.

At the time I was starting this project, there were also a number of historians writing about the later years of the 20th century and the rise of mass incarceration. I was drawn to these middle years because I felt that there was an important story there that historians might be missing. This was especially important, because these years were when the size and functions of the US state expanded massively, due to the New Deal and World War II.

Then, as I began the research, I was really surprised by how much crime, criminality, and policing were emphasized during the World War II years, both in New York City and at the state and federal levels. So, the project became focused on the World War II years, but as I revised the book manuscript in later drafts, I realized that many of the dynamics that became so heightened during the war actually began in the early 1930s. These were part of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his police commissioner Lewis Valentine’s vision for policing in the city, throughout the time they were in office.

So, ultimately, the project became a political and social history of the time that La Guardia and Valentine were in office, which was 1934–1945.


Our culture tends to train us to understand police officers as enforcers of the law. But, a theme that runs throughout historiography of policing in the United States is the way that officers are trained to find and even construct criminality for themselves.

MG: Because my own book so intensely zeros in at times on the particular positionality of Italians and Jews in a multiracial city, I have got to ask: what do you think about the role La Guardia’s own ethnic identity played, both in shaping his politics and how others may have viewed him?


EB: I don’t focus on that in the book, but I do think his ethnic background played a significant role in shaping his political perspective. From the 1880s to the 1920s, New York City politics was so connected to ethnicity, and this was exactly when La Guardia was coming up in politics.

The fact that his father was Italian; that his mother was Jewish (from the Austrian-controlled city of Trieste); that he was born in the 1880s, when Italians and Jews were large proportions of the city’s immigrants, but had not yet achieved the type of political acceptance of Irish and Germans: all this influenced LaGuardia’s world view, and his options, once he sought to enter city politics. Moreover, as a recent Italian immigrant, La Guardia’s musician father struggled to find work in New York; ultimately, he joined the Army and moved his family to the southwest. During his childhood in Arizona, La Guardia experienced discrimination and ridicule, both for his Italian and his Jewish background. Here, it seems, is where he came to identify with vulnerable and exploited people. Then, during the Spanish-American War, his father got sick in the Army and the family moved back to Europe. Later, La Guardia attributed his father’s illness, and subsequent death, to government corruption. He even argued that it was this loss that motivated him to battle dishonest government throughout his career.

La Guardia later moves back to New York, where he works at a variety of organizations before becoming an interpreter at Ellis Island. Then, he goes to night school to become a lawyer. Through this work, he continues to be enmeshed in the city’s treatment of “new immigrants” from southern and eastern Europe.

When he moves into politics, which was his eventual goal, his ethnic background informs his position, as it did for most players in urban politics in this period. He was unlikely to align himself with the Tammany Democrats, the city’s most powerful, and predominantly Irish, political faction because of his commitment against corruption. But, in addition, Jewish and Italian communities in New York still had less sway with Tammany than Irish residents.

So, he runs for congress as a Republican and mobilizes Italian and Jewish voters, among others. Still, he is never fully aligned with the WASP-y and more conservative branches of the party. It is partly a reflection of his background and the idiosyncrasies of this era of New York City politics that enable him to become a wet (anti–alcohol prohibition), anti-Tammany, Republican Congressman, who was the first Republican to represent his district, and then later for him to win the mayor’s office on a fusion ticket, with begrudging Republican support, but wholeheartedly embraced New Deal policies.

MG: One thing that absolutely fascinated me about your book and the specific time period, both the 1930s and the Second World War period, was how it tracks the growth of federal power and its projection of force onto urban spaces like New York City. Do you imagine this story as showing the early foundations of a dispersed national security state?


EB: I viewed policing in the book more through a framework of urban politics than as an early expression of national security aims. In the period that I write about, many New York City residents and administrators saw interactions with the NYPD as the site where urban citizens would experience the government in action, which unfortunately, continues to be true for a lot of city residents.

But, one of the things that I found through my research, and that other scholarship on the New Deal and urban governance shows, is that the power of the municipal government and the federal government can grow in tandem. They need not be competing with each other. There is certainly a significant expansion of federal power that I track in Gotham’s War within a War. But, ultimately, my book shows how municipal leaders funneled national security aims through their own priorities and policies.

A perfect example of this melding of municipal and federal power is the closing of the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. During the war, the NYPD successfully closed it down, because there was new attention and new military resources devoted to keeping white service members from socializing with sexually profiled women and particularly Black women. The club, however, had long been targeted by the NYPD, because it was one of the few in the city that permitted interracial dancing. So, the war bolstered the policing projects that La Guardia and Valentine had been attempting to enact throughout the 1930s.

That’s different from other cities and localities, where there was not such a robust law enforcement project already underway. There, during the war, the intervention of federal policing entities like the FBI and the Social Protection Division was a sharper break with preexisting practices.


MG: Yes, one of my favorite parts of your book, and surely the most illustrative, was the campaign to close the Savoy. I also couldn’t stop thinking about your book when I recently visited Grand Central and saw at least three or four overlapping local, state, and federal agencies patrolling: here was quality of life policing, national security, and broken windows all entwined.

During the 1940s, for someone visiting Times Square or another landmark, what overlapping jurisdictions would they enter? As you point out, race and gender were (and are) central to how these agencies and departments patrolled, so what different authorities would, for instance, a Black woman have to navigate if she were at one of these heavily surveilled landmarks during the years of World War II? What does that tell us about urban politics in the era?


EB: One element of policing that becomes apparent very quickly when you study it but is counterintuitive if you do not is the extreme discretion involved. Our culture tends to train us to understand police officers as enforcers of the law, so we often think of them as reacting to problematic or illegal behavior. But, a theme that runs throughout historiography of policing in the United States (and both our books!) is the way that officers are trained to find and even construct criminality for themselves. And, as you note in your question, the perceived social identities of policed people are central to how officers are taught to view crime.

In the period that I write about, there were a number of different policing agencies. It was really striking to me that members of the various agencies were often surveilling different people for different types of behavior. At one point during the war, La Guardia even says to enlisted men coming into the city: “If that military police or shore patrol gets in your way, just call a city cop! He’ll help you!”

So, in a landmark like Grand Central or Times Square, you would have had military police and shore patrol watching enlisted men, but not really concerned with what other people were up to. As one gay man in the Navy remembered later, “As long as I avoided the shore patrol, I was fine.”

There also would have been members of the NYPD’s Division of National Defense, who might have been in or out of uniform, and would have included patrolwomen. These DND officers would have been watching for suspected sex workers, so a Black woman in either of these areas would have had to be careful not to be targeted because of the racist and sexist characterization of Black women as sex workers and venereal disease carriers. The officers in the Division of National Defense would also have been looking for young women with soldiers or on their own. And in any bar or restaurant in the area, there might also have been uniformed NYPD officers stationed, if any “morals laws” arrest had occurred there previously.

Then there were the members of the City Patrol Corps, which was the city’s 7,000-strong wartime police auxiliary agency composed of civilians who were encouraged and coerced into volunteering with the corps. Though not formal officers of the NYPD, members of the City Patrol Corps worked with police precincts under the department’s direction. They were intended to augment the numbers of the NYPD since municipal police officers were not exempted from the draft and roughly 3,000 officers left the department to serve in the military. Though the press framed participation in the Patrol Corps as voluntary, La Guardia sent letters to civilian men who were deferred from the draft threatening to have their deferral revoked if they did not join the Corps, so there was a fair amount of coercion involved.

There were also parts of the city’s surveillance network that were less visible and more reactive, but that nonetheless contributed to making city life more dangerous for Black women, particularly the campaigns against sexually transmitted infections or venereal diseases. The city’s health department and military venereal disease control centers collected information from men who sought treatment for sexually transmitted infections about their previous sexual encounters. This information—which was likely influenced by racist public health narratives about Black women and disease—was then often used as justification to surveil Black women and spaces where sexually profiled women socialized.

The ways that these different entities circumscribed people’s freedoms during the war was revealing, as were the ways that they worked together or came into conflict with each other.

MG: Writing a book is hard, writing a book about policing is even harder. Did you have any problems finding sources? For a lot of my book, the problem became that the NYPD destroyed all its departmental archives from before 1920. That meant finding sources from all over and weaving them together, which became a real act of tapestry making. Did you find that?


EB: Yes. That was absolutely my experience. The challenges presented by the NYPD’s destruction of its own records and refusal to share with scholars definitely structured my work.

It is important to note that police departments often do this as part of a political project, in which they seek to control their own historical narratives and limit calls for democratic accountability. You have to get creative to get around this secrecy and find records of policing in unexpected places. Ultimately, however, this creativity produces better and more accurate histories, because we can see policing working from various angles and perspectives.

One consistent and essential source for me was the mayor’s papers at New York City’s Municipal Archives, since there was so much communication between La Guardia and Valentine. Then there were federal papers from the war departments like the Social Protection Division. The NYPD’s annual reports were also very useful for official narratives. In the early 1930s, the NYPD started publishing Spring 3100, which was its monthly internal magazine for current and former officers. This was an incredible resource on informal internal department culture: it included a monthly fiction contest, comics drawn by readers, and a column introduced in the 1940s entitled “Strictly for the Girls,” which was for women in the department and the wives of police officers.

Another essential collection of resources came from historical archives from Black newspapers like the New York Age, People’s Voice, and Amsterdam News, among others. These papers challenged police narratives about the criminality of Black New Yorkers, presented alternative witness statements in cases of police brutality, and publicized organizing efforts against police harassment and violence.

Then, in addition to these semi-consistent sources, I hunted through collections and scraps of stories from a variety of unlikely sources. One of my favorite finds was coming upon an entire folder dedicated to investigating a racist campaign of “crime wave” hysteria against Black soldiers in Staten Island, which I found in the personal papers of one member of a committee formed by La Guardia to promote “unity” during the war. The papers of the novelist Ann Petry, who was a journalist for Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s leftwing People’s Voice during these years, was also an amazing resource.

To understand women’s interactions with police, I had to search through records of groups like the Women’s Prison Association, which assisted women who had been incarcerated. The social workers who worked for the Association interviewed the women who received aid about their lives and how they got arrested and incarcerated, so there were some stories there about women’s interactions with police.

In addition to hunting through varied archival collections to find mentions of the police, another challenge that this type of research poses is that the metrics of collecting information are not consistent. We know, of course, that police and court data is not reliable, nor is it a measure of criminal activity and behavior. Also, as you explore in your book, there is a whole history to how this type of information was extracted, recorded, and reproduced.

This data can still be a useful measure of police behavior over time. But it is hard to track change over time when reports in one year use one term, another year uses a different term, and then there is no record for the next three years. That type of inconsistency also requires triangulation with a number of different sources, just to move your reader through time and allow the narrative to remain consistent.


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MG: As long as we’re on the topic of how hard it was to write these books, I so want to echo your great question: How was it writing a bulk of this book in a post-2020 world—both in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the major protests specifically about racial state violence that we saw that summer?


EB: When I look back on the early period of the pandemic it feels surreal now, which is maybe a sentiment that a lot of people share. I had a baby in April of 2020, becoming a parent for the first time in the midst of all the death and uncertainty of that moment.

So, the period of time when I was finishing my book was structured by the pandemic and by the needs of new parenthood, and how the two were interwoven for me. I had to cut research trips, which changed the scope of the book. And I was also not really able to participate in many of the protests against racist police violence in the summer of 2020, though I took a lot of hope and inspiration from them.

I was very lucky in many ways, though, because I had already signed my book contract and had already completed much of the research for the book. Additionally, I received financial support from two writing fellowships that meant that I could concentrate on finishing my book without worrying about a heavy adjunct teaching load. I am extremely disappointed that one of them, the Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowship, has been discontinued. My book would not have been possible without that fellowship and I know that without its support our discipline and many others will lose much of the incredible scholarship that comes from community college faculty when their research is supported. The other fellowship was the New York Public Library’s Center for Research in the Humanities. It is still going strong, and people should apply!

So, the material realities of trying to finish the book during the pandemic were one thing, but I also think the pandemic altered the way I thought about some of the history that I was writing about. Our interpretations of the past are always informed by our experiences in the present, and I read some of my sources differently because of the pandemic. I was researching and writing about how people thought about contagion, disease, public health, and policing, all in the context of sexually transmitted infections in the 1930s and 1940s. Living through debates about policies related to Covid transmission that touched on similar themes made me think about these issues in new ways.

I also felt—particularly when I was back in the archives in 2021 and 2022 and reading sources from New York City from 1939 and 1940—a deep sense of historical empathy with many of the authors of the sources I was reading, whose lives were about to change dramatically. As historians we like to periodize, or break time up into chunks to make it more understandable. For me, the pandemic felt like one of the most dramatic moments of rupture that I had yet lived through. It made me think a lot more about what those shifts might have felt like for the New Yorkers that I wrote about, who were living through their own moment of before and after.

We may be living through another one of those moments now, as our government enables the mass killing and collective punishment of civilians in Gaza, and as those who criticize it in the US are being targeted for censure or firing.

Obviously my book is finished. But I’ve been writing and talking about it since it came out in October. It is not really possible to think about the history of state violence and the wartime constriction of civil liberties without seeing how those same themes are playing out today.


MG: Writing about New York and also living in New York, has working on this project made you see the city differently? Do you find yourself in spaces and have sudden historian’s vertigo over all the things that have happened there or what the markers/statues/plaques convey? Are there spaces you understand differently now?


EB: Definitely. I passed a fire and police call box in my neighborhood the other day, which was a bit of a trip. The weekend my book came out, I was flying home through the newly renovated LaGuardia Airport, and walked by a hallway where quotes from La Guardia are posted along the airport walls. One that struck me was “the war to make the world safe for democracy must not serve as the pretext for the curtailment of the most essential freedoms,” since my research explores many ways that his campaigns to police the wartime city did exactly that.

For me those experiences are not just connected to particular places, but also to policing dynamics that I see play out around the city. During the summer there is a big Police Athletic League presence on the playgrounds where I live. When I see the PAL on the playground or when my child’s daycare takes her to a PAL fair, I think about the history of the league, which was formalized in the 1930s with the goals of creating positive interactions between heavily policed youth and the NYPD and expanding recreational opportunities for poor and working-class youth. In my research, I found that heavily policed communities paid a high cost for the city’s choice to run these recreational offerings through a program affiliated with the NYPD, and I often think today about how much better off we would be if there were more free recreational activities for children and youth that were not nested under the carceral sphere. icon

This article was commissioned by Imani Radney.

Featured image: Photograph of Emily Brooks courtesy of the author.