The Washington Times published part one of my On Crime column on Paul Moses’ The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia.
You can read the column via the below link or the below text:
Being half Italian and growing up in an Italian American neighborhood in South Philadelphia, I was aware of organized crime at an early age. Back in the 1960s, I lived around the corner from Angelo Bruno, who was then the boss of the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra crime family.
I also lived around the corner from Richard Zappile, the Italian American Philadelphia chief of detectives who fought the Cosa Nostra and later served as deputy police commissioner. There were and are far more Italian police officers than Italian mobsters.
So I was interested in Paul Moses’ “The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia,” and I contacted him and asked why he wrote the book.
“It spins off from my previous book, ‘An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians’ (NYU Press, 2015). That book explores how these two ethnic groups, once so antagonistic to each other, eventually came together. Part of that story was about the early Italian officers in the Irish-dominated NYPD. I focused a chapter on Lt. Joseph Petrosino (seen in the above photo), founding commander of the Italian Squad. He did not have an easy time in getting respect within the department, but eventually was celebrated and then mourned by the entire city after he was murdered while on an undercover mission to Sicily in 1909.
“Petrosino’s life and death have been well covered in many books, some movies, and even comic serials. But I saw that the history of what happened to the Italian Squad after his assassination was not as well known. I wanted to write it because it’s both an exciting crime story and a revealing window on the immigrant experience in America. It resonates in today’s debates about immigrants and crime, and police-community relations. It’s a true-crime story that explores social trends that continue to affect us today.”
How did you research the book?
“Newspaper archives from the period I covered, 1904 to 1922, were certainly important. But over-reliance on the newspapers has sometimes skewed the historical record, I found. So a lot of other sources were needed to figure out what really happened.
“These included transcripts of trials and other government proceedings; records that Joseph Petrosino’s family kept; some records, including a diary, kept by the family of Petrosino’s successor and friend, Lt. Anthony Vachris; prison records; State Department correspondence (since New York police communicated with Italian authorities through diplomatic channels); daily reports of Secret Service agents; archives such as the records of the U.S. consul in Palermo; City Hall correspondence; annual police reports, and so on.
“The NYPD’s records from the period are mostly lost, but there was a lot of detail on personnel, discipline and other police matters published in The City Record, a sort of Federal Register.”
Why did the NYPD establish the Italian Squad?
“Two reasons. First, the newspapers hyped Italian crime, instilling in the public the false idea that there was a massive ‘Black Hand’ crime syndicate directed by mob bosses in Sicily or Naples. They demanded action, creating a political headache for the mayor.
“Second, there were some serious crimes afflicting the Italian community — blackmail, enforced through bombings and kidnappings targeted at immigrant Italians who’d managed some small success, such as owning a grocery store. The Italian community demanded better policing — more Italian-speaking officers, for starters.”
Why did the immigrant Italian police officers join the squad and agree to fight the Black Hand?
“Joseph Petrosino and his successors felt that the entire Italian immigrant community was being tainted as crime-prone because of crimes committed by a small minority. They knew that their fellow immigrants by and large just wanted to improve their lives by working hard.
“Because of language barriers and perhaps indifference, the NYPD was failing to protect the community. And most Italian immigrants wouldn’t cooperate with law enforcement, either, partly because of their experiences with police in Italy, and partly out of recognition that the criminal justice system in New York was stacked against them.
“The mission that Petrosino began and passed on to his successors was to be a bridge between an Italian community that distrusted the police and a police department that was very skeptical of the immigrants flooding into the city.”
How was the Italian Squad perceived by Tammany Hall politicians?
“Tammany did not like the idea of having an Italian Squad. Tammany leaders had a lot of influence on the Police Department, and that helped protect their gambling interests. The Italian Squad was a wild card; its commanders generally reported to the commissioner or a deputy commissioner, rather than through the ranks of the Detective Bureau.”
In part two, Mr. Moses discusses the Black Hand and Cosa Nostra in America.
• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.
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Note: Below is a photo of former Philadelphia Cosa Nostra crime family boss Angelo Bruno and a photo of the former Philadelphia Police chief of detectives Richard Zappile.