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The N.Y.P.D.’s “superb weapon”

A photograph displays the facade of a large brown building on a city street.

The Police Athletic League (PAL) building, formerly Grammar School 47, at 34 1/2 East 12th Street between University Place and Broadway in Manhattan, New York City. Source: Beyond My Ken via Wikimedia

New York City’s Mayor, Bill de Blasio, began his second term in office last month, amidst an ongoing wave of activism against racial profiling and police brutality in cities across the nation. [1] De Blasio’s approach to assuaging this criticism in New York has involved new training for police officers, community meetings between officers and residents, and neighborhood-based patrol assignments. The mayor and Police Commissioner James O’Neill describe these policies as “neighborhood” policing, but they have much in common with community policing programs that a number of other cities across the country have recently adopted. These policies aim, in part, to increase the trust that poor and nonwhite urbanites, who continue to be heavily policed, feel toward police officers. Critics of the New York Police Department’s (N.Y.P.D.) change in protocol argue that the approach is unlikely to reduce police violence or harassment because it fails to alter the power dynamics between officers and these communities. Although de Blasio and Police Commissioner O’Neill present this shift as a “new direction” for the department, the city’s Police Athletic League (P.A.L.), which still operates today, has embodied similar principles since its official formation in the early 1930s. Throughout the P.A.L.’s first decade of operation, N.Y.P.D. leaders sought to use the league to cultivate trust and respect for police officers among the city’s working-class and nonwhite youth. Examining the early history of the P.A.L. can shed light on similar efforts being deployed today.

In the 1930s, the P.A.L. developed from informal games overseen by patrolmen into an organized recreational program intended to spread positive messages about policing to working-class youth. The department established a Crime Prevention Bureau in 1930, which the commissioner charged with monitoring young people around the city. During the next few years, officers in the bureau set up baseball, basketball, and football teams. These teams provided recreational activities for boys in working-class neighborhoods while also creating opportunities for friendly interactions with patrolmen. Girls could also serve as members in the P.A.L. and participate in some, but not all, of the league’s activities. Throughout the 1930s and onward, the P.A.L. provided increasing opportunities for girls. The police commissioner, the head of the P.A.L. and other members of the department, however, subscribed to gendered conceptions of citizenship, athleticism, and juvenile delinquency, and conceived of the P.A.L. as particularly suited to influence and aid boys.

Throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, patrolmen had chased, harassed, and arrested boys who played or worked on the city’s streets. These children, therefore, saw officers as an annoyance at best and a danger at worst. N.Y.P.D. officials knew of this animosity and sought to alter young people’s view of the patrolman as a “boogy-boo.”[2] Department leaders turned their attention to the behavior of youth in the early 1930s as part of a growing movement among social workers, criminologists, and law enforcement officials who conceived of monitoring children as part of a larger program of “crime prevention.” Adherents to this movement viewed childhood misbehavior as a predictor of future criminality, but they also believed that children who were taught to obey and respect police authority would develop into law-abiding adults. Police-sponsored games, thus, provided a valuable opportunity to shift children’s negative perception of police officers, and in 1935 the city formalized the work of the P.A.L.

Law enforcement leaders saw P.A.L. activities as a means to influence the physical and ideological development of working-class boys. In the summer of 1939, the league selected 120 “underprivileged” boys to attend sleep-away camp in the Adirondacks. The N.Y.P.D. described the camp as a “challenge to the pool halls and ‘dead end’ streets” of the city.[3] Upon arrival at the camp, boys received P.A.L. uniforms before embarking on a program focused on physical exercise and health. The boys’ responsibilities included policing the grounds as well as washing dishes and cutting wood. N.Y.P.D. leaders sought to both remove working-class youth from the city’s streets and provide them with positive associations with police authority through their experience at the camp.

As the nation prepared for and then entered World War II, law enforcement and municipal leaders connected the physical and ideological projects of the P.A.L. to the war effort. In a front-page article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Police Commissioner Lewis Valentine argued that during the war the project of the P.A.L. to teach respect for both police and military authority became “more important than ever.” The commissioner included a letter from a former P.A.L. member, now serving in the U.S. Navy, with his article. In his letter, Eddie Moe declared that it was through the P.A.L. that he learned “how to behave myself.” Valentine reflected of Moe’s letter, “there can be no greater tribute.”[4] Valentine included Moe’s letter as an illustration of a P.A.L. member who embraced the league’s messages about respect for police and military authority.

N.Y.P.D. leadership also cited P.A.L. programs as evidence of racial equality at a time when black New Yorkers criticized violent and racially targeted policing. The department’s official magazine touted that the P.A.L. “brings into every-day contact children of all races, creeds and colors, and does much to promote comradeship among them.” Despite this celebration of interracial inclusion, in the early 1940s black New Yorkers, communists, and progressives criticized the ways that patrolmen harassed black youth, particularly in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. N.Y.P.D. officials argued against this characterization by pointing to the lack of racial segregation in the P.A.L., despite the fact that both department leaders and patrolmen openly discussed targeting black and Puerto Rican youth for arrest. The department, therefore, used the P.A.L. as a tool to deflect complaints about racial inequality in policing.[5]

From its formal inception in the early 1930s through the WWII years, N.Y.P.D. leaders saw the P.A.L. as a means of promoting favorable perceptions of patrolmen and the police department. By the end of WWII, the entire department had enrolled as members of the P.A.L., significantly increasing the league’s funds, and N.Y.P.D. leaders had successfully promoted such programs to other cities around the country. In his autobiography, published shortly after his death in 1947, Valentine expounded on the usefulness of the P.A.L., which he described as a “superb weapon.”[6] The former commissioner celebrated the ability of the P.A.L.’s recreational activities to combat idleness or delinquency by providing youth with organized athletic activities. He also, however, valued the league’s ideological powers, and believed that young people who engaged in its games learned respect for and trust in his police department.

Police commissioners who embrace elements of community policing today also have residents’ perceptions of police officers in mind. Like P.A.L. programs, community policing provides opportunities for positive interactions between residents and department members. Through these programs, departments seek to encourage residents to conceive of officers as part of and responsive to their communities, without fundamentally altering the relationship between the police and the policed. In the 1930s and 1940s, department leaders viewed P.A.L. programs as successful in promoting trust in police officers. Black, working-class, and Puerto Rican New Yorkers, however, raised criticisms of police practices toward youth in the city throughout these years.

Interrogating the impact and legacy of such programs in both the earlier years of the P.A.L. and today raises useful questions about the relationships between police departments and residents. These programs provided valued access to summer camp and organized athletics for children who lacked such opportunities, while also performing ideological work for the police department. Rather than attempting to measure the good or ill that these programs wrought in the lives of children in the city, this post seeks to explore the ways that N.Y.P.D. leaders conceived of the league’s athletic programs. Such an exploration can, hopefully, broaden our understanding of the workings of both the P.A.L. and the police department, and more fully inform considerations of the utility and costs of connecting youth programs to police departments. The history of the P.A.L. also suggests that while the N.Y.P.D.’s recent turn toward neighborhood policing may mark a shift in department policy, it can also be viewed as the latest iteration in an ongoing and contested project.

Emily Brooks is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of “Marijuana in La Guardia’s New York City: The Mayor’s Committee and Federal Policy, 1938-1945,” in the Autumn 2016 issue of the Journal of Policy History, and is currently working on a dissertation exploring anti-vice policing and gender in New York City during World War II.

[1] For the quote in the title, see Lewis Valentine, Night Stick: The Autobiography of Lewis Valentine (New York: The Dial Press, 1947), 271.

[2] For quote see “Humbert Moruzzi Youth Center Dedicated” Spring 3100, December 1941, 8.

[3] “Fox Lair P.A.L.” Spring 3100, July 1939, 15-17.

[4] Lewis Valentine, “Juvenile Delinquency in Brooklyn,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 31, 1941, 1.

[5] “Police Athletic League of All Nations” Spring 3100, April 1939, 27. “Wallander Denies Police Are Brutal in Negro Arrests” New York Times, Aug. 8, 1946, 1.

[6] Lewis Valentine, Night Stick: The Autobiography of Lewis Valentine (New York: The Dial Press, 1947), 271.