Police Demographics Unit Casts Shadows From Past

Ethnic and racial profiling by the authorities. Concerns about the true loyalties of Americans whose roots are elsewhere. Tracking where New Yorkers of potentially suspect racial, ethnic or religious backgrounds live.

When it comes to the question of how the New York Police Department behaves, those steeped in local history might ask: What’s new?

News reports that the Police Department has created a demographics unit to monitor, as Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly explained, “a lot of different communities,” have provoked alarm and criticism among civil liberty advocates who consider the program as unfairly placing entire groups of people, particularly Muslims, under a shadow of suspicion.

While Mr. Kelly told a City Council committee recently that information was compiled on the basis of geography, not ethnicity, concerns were expressed that the Police Department was singling out Muslim New Yorkers.

But the unit also echoes a similar effort nearly a century ago.

In 1919, a legislative committee headed by State Senator Clayton R. Lusk conducted a sweeping investigation into organizations and individuals suspected of being socialists, communists or anarchists. Some people were caught red-handed. Others suffered guilt by association. Many, including Emma Goldman, a well-known anarchist activist, were deported to Russia. So-called “hyphenates” — Irish and German New Yorkers, in particular — were suspect.

In the course of its investigation, the committee commissioned maps prepared by the New York Police Department and the State Police identifying neighborhoods in which certain immigrants and their offspring predominated. There was no attempt to disguise the maps as “geographic” or to conceal their purpose. They were clearly labeled “ethnic map,” prepared under the direction of a deputy attorney general for Mr. Lusk’s Joint Legislative Committee Investigating Seditious Activities.

Mr. Lusk was a Republican from upstate Cortland who eventually became the Senate majority leader. He later likened the New Deal to socialism and communism.

The maps identified enclaves of Germans, Irish, Russian Jews, Austro-Hungarians, Syrians and blacks, among other groups.

Mr. Lusk addressed a patriotic rally in Carnegie Hall by the American Defense Society at which John R. Rathom, the editor of The Providence Journal, complained about English immigrants who declined to become naturalized citizens, and then took a broad swipe at Irish newcomers.

“There are hundreds of thousands of Irish in this country who are not loyal, not American and never will be American,” said Mr. Rathom, who often warned of the dangers of Bolshevism.

The maps survive in the state archives in Albany, where they were rediscovered by Christopher Finan when he was researching his 2003 biography of Alfred E. Smith, who was governor when Mr. Lusk was mounting his campaign.

Mr. Finan, who is the president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, said the maps were used by the legislative committee “to justify a series of laws violating First Amendment rights” — loyalty tests and other provisions — which Mr. Smith vetoed in 1920 as striking at “the very foundation of one of the most cardinal institutions of our nation: the fundamental right of the people to enjoy full liberty in the domain of idea and speech.”

Mr. Finan said of the latest effort by the Police Department, “This mapping exercise is as silly — and dangerous — today as it was in 1919.”

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