Policing the City: A Conversation with Matthew Guariglia

Justin Hendrix / Nov 12, 2023

Audio of this conversation is available via your favorite podcast service.

A couple of weeks ago, the New York City Policy Department (NYPD) failed to appear – for the third time – before the New York City Council to answer questions about its use of surveillance technologies. NYPD is required to disclose information about its complement of cameras, robots, social media monitoring software, drones, and various other surveillance technologies under the the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POSTAct. According to Surveillance Technology Oversight Project's Corinne Worthington and Aaron Greenberg in a recent post on Tech Policy Press, NYPD has so far failed miserably to comply with most of the POST Act’s requirements.

Observers of NYPD are likely not surprised to hear that it has little interest in explaining to the public how it spends its multibillion dollar budget, particularly when it comes to new technology. But how far back do you have to go to really understand the origins of the department's recalcitrance? And what does the history of the NYPD tell us about the origins of modern policing beyond New York?

Today's guest is Dr. Matthew Guariglia, a senior policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and author of the new book, Police and the Empire City: Race and the Origins of Modern Policing in New York, just out from Duke University Press. Guariglia says we're really living in a world of police surveillance built in the early 20th century, even as police departments wield powers that only a few years ago we thought might only be in the hands of federal intelligence agencies.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.


Matthew Guariglia:

My name is Dr. Matthew Guariglia, I'm a historian of surveillance and policing, I'm also a senior policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the author of Police and the Empire City, Race and the Origins of Modern Policing in New York.

Justin Hendrix:

You are from New York, I understand.

Matthew Guariglia:

I was born in Manhattan and grew up in southern Westchester County till I was mid childhood.

Justin Hendrix:

Tell me about your research and work to date. You have been with the Electronic Frontier Foundation for a bit, focused on these issues.

How does that intersect with your academic research?

Matthew Guariglia:

Yeah, after graduate school where I had done this doctorate in the history of kind of policing and surveillance in the United States, I had also spent a lot of time as a reporter. I had done a lot of Freedom Information Act requests, activism, and kind of investigative reporting specifically around surveillance and kind of the national security state writ large.

And after graduate school in academic history, I was really just interested by some job postings I'd seen out of EFF. I'd been a fan and member of EFF since 2013 and the kind of Snowden NSA scandals. And I was just interested in my ability to provide historic context to these stories, even to, like, a very pre digital era, but also very interested that I was finding in my historical research that the arguments, the moral and legal and kind of ethical arguments about how police and how governments should and should not use technology, how dangerous hoarding information and storing information in particular ways could be, and I found that I could be very convincing and can make very convincing arguments for tech policy reform even through this lens of, of being a historian. So I had gotten this job at EFF and, and kind of hit the ground running in terms of talking about surveillance and surveillance technologies, but thinking about it as like part of a larger, maybe century or century and a half conversation about civil liberties, civil rights, and information.

Justin Hendrix:

This book, I should say for listeners, is not about technology or surveillance primarily. You say it is to show how race shaped modern policing, how in turn modern policing helped to define and redefine racial boundaries. In New York, you chose a particular period to write about and yet you see the connection between how in the early days of the New York Police Department, certain ideas, certain ways of thinking about the world kind of got hard coded.

Matthew Guariglia:

I mean, I focused mostly on this period between the 1890s and the 1920s, because this is a moment of extreme demographic shifts in specifically New York City, but really most cities in the United States are seeing a huge influx of immigration from southern and eastern Europe. There's a lot of mounting immigration from China and Japan, despite a few decades of Chinese exclusion.

And then there is also migration from the American South of black Americans who are moving to northern cities. And during this moment, all these police departments are really searching for a new model of policing that will allow mostly white, mostly native English speaking police to police a very multi ethnic, multi racial, and multilingual city.

And the style of policing they kind of land on that becomes the hegemonic way of understanding these multiracial cities is the style of policing that is kind of surveillance. It is surveillance based. It is about information and information hoarding so that when you have somebody who speaks Italian and you police are trying to communicate with them or catch them after the fact, after doing a crime, rather than have to understand how to communicate with them or understand their culture.

Or understand their like kinship networks. Instead, you have a file and a fingerprint and you have these new psychological scientific terms like modus operandi and you have all these ways of understanding people in a kind of simplified standardized way through files and filing cabinets that usurps a more personal and more learned way of interacting with people.

Justin Hendrix:

So this is not the surveillance we're used to today with cameras and robots and various other things that are in the New York Police Department's arsenal, but a set of human practices.

Matthew Guariglia:

It's a set of information collecting, and what I found that's really interesting is that in many ways, these are the analog original versions of the type of digital surveillance we deal with today.

So in lieu of face recognition, which obviously creates a digital face print they had this thing called the Bertolino method where. They physically, with a ruler, measured the distance between people's eyes, the distance of somebody's nose, how long an ear is, and they would file away a person based on a two inch long nose, so that if a person was arrested again and they measured a nose and they said, oh, that person has a two inch nose, they can go to their filing cabinet, they can go to the section on two inch noses, and they can see if the person they've just arrested has been arrested in the past and had a previous file.

So you see these kind of pre digital versions of things that we, we still are dealing with. And we get to understand that this technology and the problems it presents are not new at all, especially because there was quite a lot of outrage, even in this period the turn of the 20th century, where people were thinking about The reputational harms it, it has on people if police have them on file indefinitely and have all this information on them.

Justin Hendrix:

You point out in the book that the NYPD, while it may have always been keen on collecting as much information as possible on people, you say it has been a diligent destroyer of its own archive and has no central repository with documents, case files, criminal records. How did you report this out?

What was your process for being able to excavate all of this information?

Matthew Guariglia:

Yeah, that's a really good question because this was not an easy book to research. In part in, in the 1920s, I believe the New York City Police Department took all of its records over decades to a paper mill in New Jersey and shredded it all.

So there is no central repository. So you have to look to see where the New York City Police Department interacted with other bureaucratic entities. Aat the New York Municipal Archives are centuries of the mayor's papers and the mayor, all these mayors were in steady contact with the police department with all levels of the police department to we're receiving different reports and different communications.

So the mayor's papers are very useful. The district attorney's files criminal court transcripts, Okay. Offer like an incredible insight into like the narratives of how arrests happen, both from the police's side, which the prosecutors use and from the defendant's side, who kind of tell their story of police impunity and unaccountability.

And then there's year end reports the NYPD put out every year about their priorities and their arrest records for that year, some of which the arrests are broken down by, by race, by profession, by nation of origin of the people arrested, which is very useful. And the other thing I found was In the 1920s and 1930s, when all these police were thinking about prohibition and how criminals now sat atop multi million dollar liquor empires and they had machine guns and all the things you think about when you think about the 1930s gangster era, all of these cops toward the end of their career started to get nostalgic for the The pre prohibition era.

And so all of these detectives and all these beat cops started writing these very nostalgic memoirs about the 1890s in the first two decades of the 20th century, which really kind of provide a really interesting look into the daily operations of policing from their perspective. And then you have things like police commissioners were political appointees, and a lot of them went on to serve.

Many other functions. So a lot of them served as military officers in the U S colonial wars in the Philippines and Cuba and Puerto Rico. And then after they served time, the NYPD, oftentimes they went on to serve in the military during world war one. So they all have very detailed records as well as part of their personal papers that a lot of educated and well to do people at that era generated.

A vast amount of archives and records and gave them all to universities, the Library of Congress at the end of their lives. And then the final piece is, is communities who were constantly dealing with police brutality and police corruption, who were constantly angry about this new style of policing in which all this information was being hoarded on individuals, even after they were acquitted, that based on arrests, their faces, their measurements, their files were all being collected by the police. These people were not necessarily quiet, they left quite a bit of evidence in the records that they were upset about the operations of police. They pushed for investigations.

There were state hearings and congressional hearings about The failures of policing and police brutality. So once you get away from looking for a centralized repository, there is quite a lot of material out there. If you're patient and diligent and try to find it.

Justin Hendrix:

You also situate the NYPD approach to policing in a kind of broader intellectual foment about how policing should be done that's going on both in the US and in Europe. Can you give us just a quick tour of that? What's happening in this time period? How are major cities thinking about policing? How is that changing?

Matthew Guariglia:

The whole world is seeing a lot of movement in this era, moving of ideas often like radical ideas about labor and income inequality, anarchism and socialism is on the wind.

There's a lot of movement of people as mass migration from all over the world kind of swirls about. And the other big thing is empire. So you have France and North Africa and you have the UK in Ireland originally, and then in Egypt and India and all these places, and there they're trying to reckon with how do you get an, a British police force in colonial India to build a system of subordination and pacification that can work for a very a different continent in in Asia.

And so they're building these tools which supposedly can bridge that cultural linguistic divide. And these tools become incredibly useful in the era of migration when suddenly London has all these people from all over the world and they need to lean on that these systems they've developed in colonial regimes.

And so for instance, something I track in the book is the evolution of fingerprinting. Where fingerprinting is incubated by British forces in India, it then moves back and becomes a central part of policing in London, and then from London, Scotland Yard brings it to the United States through the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. And there, all these American police departments get to encounter fingerprinting for the first time, and basically treat it like it's magic, like it's the future. And so you can really kind of trace these technologies as they move from empire to European cities and from European cities to the United States.

And that includes things like, like filing cabinets and files where you have the New York City Police Department sending officers to Germany. They say, learn what the German police are doing, because we think they're doing it right. And when they get there, they're finding police departments and city halls that are filled with files on millions of people.

Like a good amount of all the people in Berlin have a file in the police department, and it doesn't matter if they've done something wrong or not. And that's really kind of aspirational, I think, to a lot of these NYPD officers who travel to Europe to see what the future of policing will look like.

Justin Hendrix:

The book looks at how the New York City Police Department has engaged with so many different communities from the Irish to the Italians but perhaps most focuses on how the New York City Police Department dealt with and deals with, even to this day black people can you talk a little bit about how the NYPD's focus or approach to black people and policing black bodies evolved even in this early time.

Matthew Guariglia:

There's this interesting thing, and this is where I think the approach of the book is useful in understanding policing black New Yorkers versus European immigrant New Yorkers, why it's useful to understand that in context with one another. Because what I really say is that there is this initial panic about immigrant crime where people are really frightened the New York City Police Department is not equipped to go into Russian neighborhoods or Italian neighborhoods and like really police well because they don't understand them.

That type of panic does not exist when it comes to policing black New Yorkers, because in many ways New York City Police understand black New Yorkers as being more familiar. But at the same time black crime is deemed a lot more inevitable. So I have this distinction in the book where policing in immigrant in white immigrant neighborhoods is kind of an inclusive violence.

They're still getting clubbed in the head. They're still getting beat up, but police really understand their work in immigrant neighborhoods as being training these people how to be Americans, right? You club them on the head when they are drunk in public, or when they jaywalk, or when they commit petty crimes, but that's just us teaching them the proper ways of being American.

And in black neighborhoods, the same violence is deployed in a purely exclusive way. There's no sense that we can eventually solve crime in this neighborhood through a type of uplift, through assimilation. That violence is, is purely exclusive.

Justin Hendrix:

You also look at how the police department has thought about policing women.

Matthew Guariglia:

There's, there's a real shift in the late 19th century over kind of respecting the resporting culture of the era and respecting things like men's accessibility to sex work. And this often included not just a tolerance of things like brothels, but also a protection of brothels and the people who work there.

And this kind of changes over time as they're in the progressive era. There's this kind of moral panic over sexuality, which is that the, the, the morals and the sexual purity of white women need to protect, be protected at all costs, even if that is a very punitive and paternalistic and, and oppressive way.

And at the same time non white women are not given the same. Understanding of implicit innocence that they are deemed as as unprotectable and as actually corrupting influences on public in general. So black women just when they claim their right to public space are often harassed and surveilled and arrested.

Because their very presence is deemed a threat to public morals because they're often arrested for soliciting prostitution, even when they are just Outside for any number of reasons, including walking around or walking to her from work.

Justin Hendrix:

There are so many different details in this book that the listener can go and read and learn more.

One is about the importance of translation to the New York Police Department, just the problem of dealing with so many different languages. Thinking about this when news last week that Eric Adams himself, you know, a former policeman who is now the mayor of New York City I think still thinks of himself very much as perhaps the general of the police department sent out a bunch of.

Synthetic clips of himself speaking in various languages to kind of deliver a message to New Yorkers. Talk about translation, just the problem of language for the NYPD.

Matthew Guariglia:

One of the real goals of police departments in general, but the NYPD specifically has always been the appearance of wanting to be omnipresent. That there is nowhere to hide in the city, and that is spatially, there's no physical place where you can hide, where you won't be caught or seen, but also in terms of leaning into a person's language or culture and there was this real fear that the reason why crimes were supposedly running rampant in immigrant neighborhoods, especially in Chinatown, was because people could lean into their foreignness whenever they could.

American born police were around and they could confess to crimes or plan crimes in in their native languages and not get caught forit. And so there was this. big regime that they had to build of informants and of translators, including people who would come into criminal courts and translate.

And eventually one of the things they did was built this kind of system of what I call native policing, because I connect it to the style of policing that happens in overseas empires where they had a German squad where they hired German speaking officers from all over the city.

and centralized them in a squad to handle issues related to German speakers. Or they had an Italian squad where they had this the Italian squad went from six people to over 100 Italian speaking officers just in the span of a few years. And they were supposed to handle crimes in Italian neighborhoods.

They went out and they recruited the first Chinese American officer in hopes that they would help them solve crimes in Chinatown. And so there was just this real attempt to make sure that people couldn't hide anywhere in the city, whether it be in, in physical spaces or just in kind of insular cultural or linguistic bubbles.

Justin Hendrix:

I want to try to connect some of these ideas a little more plainly to today and you start to do that, particularly kind of towards the end of the book and in the conclusion. One of the groups, of course, that has been perhaps most oppressively policed in New York over the last two decades is Muslims, also South Asians, generally after the 2001 terror attacks.

And. I don't know. You remind us of so many different things here. But of course, that hard to imagine. But NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik was briefly the interior minister of Iraq after the US invasion there. Maybe just a little bit about the connection between your work here, your thinking here, and perhaps this more recent period of contending with one particular set of ethnicities and the desire to, to police them differently from the rest of the population.

Matthew Guariglia:

I think if you think about the afterlives of the story I'm telling two branches. One is definitely community policing, it is a style of policing in which you attempt to recruit people from the neighborhood, or at least you get people who have a better understanding of a neighborhood.

And this is supposedly done from a public relations standpoint or community relations standpoint, but often is a lot about. Being able to infiltrate these communities better and make them more surveillable. But the other big side of this is the post 9 11 surveillance of Muslim communities.

And the NYPD created a unit called the Demographics Unit, which is kind of a fancy way of saying what the same thing police were trying to do in the early 20th century, which is to build a unit of people with particular language and cultural skills who could surveil an entire community. And it is like, really a testament to the fact that I say in the book, police have a very small toolbox, tools become digital tools, get updated, they get new names, they get new justifications.

But really policing, if you look at it on a century scale, has like a few dozen tried and true track tactics that no matter how much they get yhrown out or delegitimized or are called invasive, they always kind of come back and, and the demographics unit which spied on, on mosques and spied on Muslims all over New York is one of these kind of recycled tactics in which they, they really put this neighborhood, this community under a microscope and, and it is certainly a, a, the afterlife of a lot of these stories.

Justin Hendrix:

Perhaps another one of the sort of technologies that's taken on a new form you point out that in 1907 a particular Deputy Commissioner Woods brought back a technology to the New York Police Department, the police dog which was new at the time struck 120 years later, where we're now bringing along robot dogs so perhaps history does run.

Matthew Guariglia:

There's stories from the first decade of the 20th century where the NYPD is hiring statistic statisticians by the dozens, and they are trying to predict where crime will happen based on where crime has happened based on the records, and so there are all these ideas of, like, forming early predictive policing algorithms and, and all these pre digital versions of technologies we're still dealing with today, and even when I think about things like shot spotter, things like acoustic gunshot detection technology, so much of the justification for that is because police fear that if gunshots will go off nobody will call them.

Nobody will call the police to report a gunshot. And so you need technology to bridge the chasm between the police and the policed that can, there is, there is that after a century, there is so little community policing collaboration. There's so little. Holistic understanding of what safety is and how police do provide or do not provide it that you have to build these digital tools that that that bridge that gap and and so much of that is in this story where, you know, finding a fingerprint and a crime scene very much replaces the idea that witnesses won't speak to police.

And so, we're really kind of living in this, this world of police surveillance that the early 20th century built.

Justin Hendrix:

I'm speaking to you a day or so after the Citi independent news organization here in New York. has announced that NYPD bowed out yet again for a third time of a city council oversight hearing on high tech surveillance.

We have a thing called the POST Act, oversight of surveillance technologies. It's meant to require NYPD to disclose how it uses certain technologies. The Department of Investigation recently had a look at how NYPD is using different technologies, facial recognition, cell phone powers, license plate readers, various other things and made a bunch of recommendations about how to increase oversight.

NYPD has essentially rejected those and fails to show up for hearings fails to do the proper disclosures. I don't know quite what to say about it other than do you see, I don't know, corollary, or do you see a correlation to prior historical practice?

Matthew Guariglia:

Well it is interesting. There is a long history of state, city and federal hearings about police being unaccountable, untransparent, corrupt, brutal, you name it. And if the history is a hearing to investigate the problems, getting to the root of the problems, making recommendations, and then police departments not changing at all, then, then this is kind of par for the course, right? This is, this is part of the long storied history of policing is since the beginning, people saying it's unaccountable. There's no way to reform it properly making recommendations. And then none of those reforms coming to fruition. Then yeah, then I think this takes it.

This is a very particular time and place that is in keeping with the history of police departments. And yet, we are at a time period now where the, a lot of police departments wield powers that 20 years ago we thought only the NSA work was capable of they, they can From data brokers by geolocation information on millions of devices they, they can send reverse or geofence warrants to Google and draw a square on a map and learn every phone that was in that map. They can send requests to Amazon Ring and get the footage and audio from everybody's doorbell cameras. They're, they're the capabilities and sheer amount of surveillance that specifically New Yorkers and a lot of other cities where there have, which have served as specific incubators for new surveillance technologies. It's staggering. The stakes feel even higher now for how unaccountable and untransparent police are than they were a hundred years ago.

Justin Hendrix:

I live in New York. I observe NYPD. I have been at protests against police brutality and seen with my own eyes, perhaps the worst brutality I've ever seen between humans has largely been by NYPD against citizens of New York City.

So I must admit that I don't have the highest opinion of the New York Police Department and its commitment to. civil rights into humane policing. Where do we go from here in your view? I know the book's not an attempt to kind of necessarily make a statement about where we should go, but what does perhaps your study of this particular moment in history tell you about how this city should be policed or how other cities should be policed going forward?

Matthew Guariglia:

Yeah, and I think that's part of the value of looking at the history is as I was mentioning, it tells a story in which police reform is near impossible that people can try to, from the outside force reform and change onto a department, even from the top down administrators could try to make reforms, but penetrating the rank and file and getting them to adhere to reforms is, is nigh impossible.

If we just think about how long, how many years now the NYPD has supposedly said that patrol officers are banned from doing chokeholds. And yet, how many chokeholds we have seen since then, or things like. Restrictions around shooting at moving cars or restrictions on car chases.

All these things are supposedly the reforms necessary to make policing safer, and yet it seems like these reforms never really get enacted fully on the street. And so I think the, the lesson to learn from this book is that Policing is like, like everything else is a technology, and it is a technology that was developed painstakingly over decades to address crime in the city, and that not only has policing failed to stop crime fully because it doesn't address the root causes of crime, but it's created.

Harm for a lot of other communities that, in trying to solve a particular problem is actually ended up creating quite a lot of problems itself. So that in, in any other field in the history of medicine, for instance, if you have a potential solution, which creates more harms, which as I argue, Not inadvertently, right?

This is, this is part of the initial objective of police is to suppress some neighborhoods while supposedly granting more freedoms to others. But if you have a supposed solution that causes this many problems, eventually it should be phased out and replaced with something else. Like eventually in the history of innovation and, and, and experimentation, we would think that we would call it policing a failed experiment.

And we would say, okay, it is time to start to develop some better, more holistic ways of generating safety for all people through coming up with some other institutions, coming up with some other. solutions other than just this kind of repressive regime which has been given 150 years carte blanche to try to pacify by violence.

Justin Hendrix:

Perhaps if folks get a chance to read this book they may come to similar conclusions or at least think more deeply about these issues as a result of all the material you've gathered here, Matthew. Police in the Empire City, Race and the Origins of Modern Policing in New York. This is from Duke University Press.

Hope folks will go and check it out. Thank you so much for speaking to me today.

Matthew Guariglia:

Thank you so much for having me. I love the show.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...