From the 1890’s right through the middle of the 20th century, despite the work of great cops like the legendary figure Joe Petrosino, Italian-Americans were viewed as second class citizens in the NYPD. The dominant ethnic group at the time, Irish-Americans, did not readily accept what they perceived as an “influx” of “outsiders.” Many Italian-American cops believed they were subjected and held to a higher standard and faced vile sarcasm, unequal punitive action and outright bigotry.
Sometime in the early 30’s, several officers SECRETLY planned to start an Italian-American fraternal organization, which would be the foundation of today’s NYPD Columbia Association, officially organized in 1932. The founding members were “Patrolmen” Maurice Sasso and Thomas Julia and Captain James Giattini, who despite his rise through the ranks at a time when there were hardly any Italian supervisors refused to tolerate other bosses mistreating his fellow Italian-Americans. Giattini had to be particularly careful since he could lose his rank for the slightest infraction. (Civil service was quite different at that time.) For approximately two years these trailblazing men would SECRETLY recruit members and hold meetings in basements and private residences to prevent detection by the brass, who vehemently opposed the organizing of these “outsiders”.
At one point when word of these “secret meetings” leaked out, Sasso was literally physically removed from his post by several ranking officers and brought to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. He was actually held there against his will for three days. This egregious act only strengthened our founders’ resolve to organize the department’s first ethnic fraternal organization. Miraculously, then Mayor Jimmy Walker and Police Commissioner Edward Mulrooney finally acquiesced when they realized the Italians simply would not go away. Capt. Giattini would be appointed the first Columbia Association president, followed by Sasso, then Julia. One of the most decorated members in the history of the NYPD, Mario Biaggi, served as our 10th president.
Other ethnic groups would eventually follow our lead. Although the prominent ethnic group, Irish-Americans, outnumbered Italian-Americans by a very wide margin in those times, it wasn’t until 1953 that the Emerald Society was formed.
Italian-American police officers take equality, fair treatment and upward mobility for granted today. However, we must never forget the sacrifices and miserable and unfair treatment that our founders and predecessors had to endure.