The massive palazzo-style building at 100 Old Slip in downtown Manhattan now sits vacant. It housed the New York Police Department’s first precinct until 1973, and in 2002 it became the home of the New York City Police Museum. But after Hurricane Sandy decimated it in 2012, the police museum — like more and more museums, archives and libraries across the country — fell victim to the growing unpredictability and extremity of storms in an era of climate change.
Almost seven years later, the museum is still defunct, its collections are still locked away. That loss has real consequences for our understanding of how policing has contributed to justice, and injustice, across the decades. The fight for more equitable criminal justice demands that we grapple with the long history of racialized state violence, mass incarceration and police surveillance.
Despite its well-documented biases, the NYPD museum provided one of the few relatively unfettered points of access to documents and objects that illuminate the history of policing. And while the black press and the testimony of bystanders and victims have always been a more reliable source for understanding the history of police brutality, documents created by the police allow readers to understand imagined motives and see, at an atomic level, how official narratives are constructed.
We desperately need these documents. With decades upon decades of police collections systematically destroyed, and more recent documents inaccessible because of over-classification, the remaining documents are what we have to expose the deep intellectual, scientific and legal justifications for criminalizing black and brown populations.
Since the early 20th century, the NYPD has been a diligent destroyer of its own archives. In the age of filing cabinets and finite space within municipal buildings, documents were often destroyed en masse. However, in the case of the New York police, much of its archive was reportedly sold to a paper mill in the early 20th century as a way to cover up the rampant corruption that permeated every level of the department in the years of Tammany Hall’s reign.
After its founding however, the museum became a collector of documents as well as artifacts of particular historical significance to the NYPD. These artifacts were strung together to celebrate the official narrative of police history — but they also provide indicators of a darker and more violent past. Photographs, diaries, letters and a miscellaneous smattering of other documents reveal an imagined perspective of what police thought or hoped they were doing in the city. Historians can dissect these records to critically evaluate the history of police power.
Consider, for example, my search for the records of the NYPD’s first Italian detective, Joseph Petrosino. From 1904 to 1909, Petrosino was in charge of the NYPD’s “Italian Squad,” a special group of Italian-speaking officers whose job it was to contend with a xenophobic panic relating to immigrant crime in New York. Petrosino’s papers were preserved in the attic of his descendants, and were not rediscovered until 2006, when his family uncovered boxes stuffed with documents, artifacts and photographs from his career.
The materials were brought together by the NYPD museum and curated into an exhibit that ran until March 2010. In the past few decades, particularly around the time Joseph Petrosino Square was dedicated in Little Italy in the 1980s, Petrosino’s career was framed as proof that the NYPD was a benevolent institution that sought to better serve the diverse population of New York. Yet, given the amount of xenophobia in the department, particularly against Italians, it is very likely that Petrosino’s papers will paint another picture: one in which the NYPD was so frightened of a people that departmental administrators often called “barbaric” and “medieval,” that they deployed a brand-new model of policing in an attempt to subordinate them.
At a moment when politicians and pundits are trying harder than usual to stoke fears about criminal immigrants, it has become especially important to understand the methods law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels has developed to survey and traumatize immigrant populations. The diaries and letters of Petrosino, himself an immigrant, could help historians get a more nuanced view of state violence, racialization and complicity.
Where are those documents now? Presumably they are with the rest of the museum’s valuable collections, in a storage unit somewhere in Brooklyn. However, it seems that friends of the Petrosino family as recently as 2014 appeared on the PBS show “Antiques Roadshow” to get an appraisal of some of the detective’s belongings, suggesting they might soon be on the auction block. Either way, those documents are now inaccessible to the curious public and historians determined to understand the long history of police power.
Storms are not the only way records of policing and criminal justice in the 20th century are hidden from scholars. Since the 1960s, Freedom of Information Act requests have been intended to increase government transparency and give scholars, journalists and the generally curious access to various public documents at the lowest and highest levels of state. In the case of the NYPD, however, FOIA requests can remain unfilled for months, if not years.
When FOIA requests are received, they are most often rejected for any number of reasons. Suing a police department over the rejection of a FOIA request creates its own barrier that very few scholars have the resources or time to pursue. While some departments can easily fall back onto the excuse of being underfunded or understaffed, it is far more often that police departments just seem disinterested or unwilling to be transparent — perhaps out of fear of undermining official narratives.
My fight for access to the letters and diaries of Joseph Petrosino continues, as does the fight of many other scholars trying to pry sensitive or potentially damaging documents out of governments and police departments around the globe.
We fight because we believe there are real consequences to access. Exposing an unvarnished history of the NYPD would pressure the department to rethink tactics that have failed vulnerable communities in the past. Making police departments more transparent is an essential part of making officers more accountable for how they do their jobs. The ongoing political fight over transparency and accessibility are not just watchwords that will determine the future of policing. They are also the battleground on which we are fighting to understand policing’s past.