Harlem Conditions

Chapter 8 | Crime and the Police

Scene of a homicide at the SE corner of 117 St. and Lenox Ave., May 21, 1935. NYPD Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Crime and Police Committee consisted of its chairman Arthur Garfield Hays, a founding member and general counsel of the ACLU; William Jay Schieffelin, a social reformer and trustee of the Tuskegee Institute; Charles E. Toney, a municipal judge and NAACP board member; and Oswald Garrison Villard, a founding member of the NAACP and editor of the New York Evening Post.

The committee investigated why juvenile delinquency among Blacks rose between 1930 and 1935. They found that during the five-year period, 137 boys and girls were arrested due to neglect, ten of whom had no home. The lack of parental supervision and family life contributed to social disorganization amongst children. Of the children arrested, 82 were under the age of 10.[1] The committee calculated that one third of the charges were for serious crimes. However, the bulk of juvenile arrests were “due to such offenses as selling newspapers after seven o’clock in the evening and shining shoes on the street.”[2]

The committee investigated adult delinquency and found that “just as juvenile delinquency thrives in an environment of poverty, broken homes, lack of recreational facilities, and vice”[3] so does adult delinquency. Out of seven police precincts in Harlem, the committee discovered that 59% of men arrested were between the ages of 20 to 35 and 67% of women were between the ages of 21 and 30[4]. 

Racketeering, the act of fraudulent behavior under the supervision of organized crime, accounted for 31.9% of the arrests.[5] Gambling operations thrived due to “the desperate economic condition of the people who hope to gain through luck what is denied them through labor.”[6] Among women, “close to 80 percent of the Negro women arrested in Harlem were arrested on charges due to immoral sex behavior.”[7]

The committee also documented unfounded warrantless searches. Officers even testified that they entered the homes of Black residents “at will.” Aggressive street stops and searches for policy slips were common. Incidents of casual police brutality and disrespect of Black citizens contributed to the “belief of the majority of the Negro citizens of Harlem that the life of a Negro is cheap in the estimation of the police.”[8]

The Committee concluded, “it is clearly the responsibility of the police to act in such a way as to win the confidence of the citizens of Harlem and to prove themselves the guardians of the rights and safety of the community rather than its enemies and oppressors.”[9]

"Negroes share in law enforcement. Negro policemen, Harlem, New York City," 1929. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library.


[1] The Harlem 1936 Conditions Report, pp. 97

[2] Ibid, pp.97

[3] Ibid, pp. 97

[4] Ibid, pp. 98

[5] Ibid, pp. 98

[6] Ibid, pp. 98

[7] Ibid, pp. 98

[8] Ibid, pp.107

[9] Ibid, pp.108

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