The Top 100 Greatest New Yorkers — #72
Joseph Petrosino (1860 – 1909)
If, in popular culture, Italian-Americans are routinely stereotyped as Mafia bosses and petty hoods, history provides some relief from that cliché in the person of Lieutenant Joe Petrosino, the first Italian officer in the NYPD. Staunchly opposed to the early machinations of organized crime syndicates such as the Black Hand, which he considered a disgrace to Italian-American society, Petrosino formed the first successful squad of officers dedicated to investigating the Mafia. Often despised within the community he protected, where wearing a uniform was seen as an act of cultural betrayal, Petrosino enjoyed the full support of Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. Later, Commissioner Theodore Bingham matched his predecessor’s enthusiasm but not his shrewdness. When Petrosino departed for Sicily with a list of known criminals whose documents would aid in their extradition process, Bingham proudly gave the story of the mission to the newspapers. While awaiting an informant in Sicily, Petrosino was murdered by Mafia gunmen in an assassination much theorized upon, but still not conclusively solved to this day. He is commemorated with a plaque in Palermo, Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino Square in New York, and the Joe Petrosino Prize for Investigative Reporting.
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