ROME – Proud New York cops often say that “the NYPD never forgets its own.” Lest that come off as mere rhetoric, a group of men and women from the Big Apple were in Rome this week to keep alive the legacy of a brother officer who died over a century ago, and not on the city’s mean streets but in far-away Sicily.
That officer, Joseph “Joe” Petrosino, was born in the southern Italian town of Padula in 1860. He would die in 1909 in Palermo, and to this day he remains the only member of New York’s finest to die serving the city outside of the United States. Petrosino was murdered by the Sicilian mafia less than a year after his only daughter was born.
The Italian-born lawman had been set on the path that eventually led to his death by none other than Theodore Roosevelt, who put in a brief stint as New York’s Police Commissioner from 1895 to 1897 (where he became famous for walking ordinary cops’ beats) before becoming the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice President, and ultimately President of the United States.
In 1908, Petrosino achieved the rank of lieutenant in the NYPD and became the head of the “Italian Squad,” assembled to deal with the mob. According to memories from the time, Petrosino saw organized crime as a shame upon Americans of Italian descent and was determined to combat it.
Some of the techniques Petrosino perfected are still practiced by law enforcement. The first Italian detective of the NYPD, he’s credited as the founder of the force’s bomb squad, the canine squad and the intelligence squad.
In the words of Robert Fonti, president of the “United States Petrosino Association,” he “took pride in being a positive role model for Italian Americans” and he “remains one of the greatest police officers ever!”
Fonti is in Italy this month marking the 110th anniversary of Petrosino’s death, leading one part of a “trinity” of Petrosino associations marking this date: There’s one in America, which he represents, one in Padula, and one in Palermo, Sicily.
“We formed this alliance and trinity to continue the legacy of Joe Petrosino,” Fonti told Crux on Wednesday, not long after the papal weekly audience for which they had front-row VIP seating. Afterwards, they visited the Swiss Guards headquarters within the Vatican.
“Rome represents what this trinity stands for, and like the Roman Catholic Church’s trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, it’s fitting that we arrive in Rome at the beginning of the Lenten season,” he said.
The group arrived in the Eternal City on Monday, two days before Ash Wednesday.
Though they didn’t get to greet Pope Francis, Fonti said they did get to “pray for the respect of the law and for God to change the hearts of those of impure hearts.”
Taking part in the audience by handing an NYPD lapel pin to a member of the pope’s guard, Fonti said, “makes this trip to keep Petrosino’s legacy alive worth doing. We have pride and passion like he did for doing the right thing.”
Beyond being one of the “greatest police officers ever,” Fonti also spoke of Petrosino’s faith in God, his countries and the law.
“He was killed for that faith, much like Jesus Christ on Good Friday,” Fonti said, calling him a “hero, an extraordinary man who led an extraordinary life.”
Petrosino’s career in the NYPD began as a shoe-shiner until someone took a liking to him and made him a sanitation worker.
“He cleaned up the garbage on the streets, and he would later continue doing the same as a police officer, detective and lieutenant,” Fonti said.
In an effort to continue his legacy, the Petrosino Association today grants scholarships for students of Italian schools in the U.S. and it also supports Italian organizations battling Italian anti-defamation, as well as those that work supporting Italian fallen heroes.
They “work with law enforcement agencies to develop a positive image of Italian and Italian Americans to help remove the negative stigma that has stereotyped the Italian community,” Fonti said.
To serve as a reminder of Petrosino’s work, an NYPD lieutenant and a detective both took part in the tour, that will also include stops in the fallen officer’s hometown and in the city where he was killed.
According to Fonti, having these two members of the force “serves as a reminder of Petrosino’s work and dedication to the job and to our positive rich heritage.”
“The NYPD never forgets someone lost in the line of duty, and that’s proved by us being here, remembering and celebrating Joe’s life’s work and legacy,” Fonti said.
Petrosino’s funeral was held in NYC at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in April 1909. An estimated 200,000 people took part in the funeral processions, and the city declared the day a holiday so that people could pay their respects.