Unlikely Historians: Materials collected by NYPD surveillance teams, 1960-1975

Beginning in 1904 with the “Italian Squad’s” focus on anarchists and continuing to the present day, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) has conducted surveillance of individuals and infiltrated organizations perceived as enemies of the status quo. At different periods, the focus was on immigrants, labor leaders, Nazi supporters, socialists, anarchists, and communists. One of the most prolific squads was the Bureau of Special Services and Investigations (BOSSI), later known as the Special Services Division.

Although BOSSI gathered intelligence on individuals and groups arrayed along the political spectrum, their main focus was on civil rights, anti-war and feminist protestors. Their targets included the Communist Party, Black Panthers, Nation of Islam, The American Renaissance Party, and Youth Against War and Fascism.


The records created by BOSSI, and the ephemera they collected over the course of surveillance activities, now provide unique documentation of one of the most turbulent eras in the City and nation’s history. The materials address subjects such as the Vietnam War, the nascent environmental movement, racial and gender discrimination, fair housing, workers’ rights, as well as global issues such as independence and sovereignty, the spread of communism, and poverty.

The items selected for the exhibit are drawn from the NYPD Photo Unit and NYPD Inspectional Services Bureau collections. The Municipal Archives acquired BOSSI records as one result of the Handschu v. Special Services Division class action settlement of 1985. The resolution of the lawsuit included guidelines for surveillance and investigations, and a provision for the Municipal Archives to review and retain all records created by the unit deemed to have administrative, legal, or historical importance.