New York News

Vittoria Renzullo Humbly Burst Glass Ceiling as NYPD Commander 

Family and friends of retired Deputy Inspector Vittoria Renzullo, who died last year at 89, accept honors for her from the Columbia Association, an Italian American fraternal organization for NYPD members. Renzullo became the first woman precinct commander in the department. (Photo: Courtesy of Gloria Holmstrom)

ELMHURST — Gloria Holmstrom recalled visiting her grandparents’ Bronx home in the late 1940s and watching her aunt alone in her room, poring over school books with the family’s beagle at her side. 

Holmstrom said her mother’s little sister, Vittoria Renzullo, saw education as her passport to destiny. But not for her own satisfaction. 

Renzullo dedicated her life to serving others as a social worker, U.S. Army soldier, and police officer. In the 1970s, she was the first woman to become a precinct commander in the New York Police Department. Renzullo, a lifelong Catholic, died a year ago at age 89. 

But although Renzullo was an early breacher of the so-called “glass ceiling,” her niece said she no doubt would have politely declined any recognition for her accomplishments. 

“She really didn’t think she did anything so fantastic,” Holmstrom said. “She was just doing her job, and she really just was a private person.” 

Upon retirement with the rank of deputy inspector, Renzullo considered new careers. She completed law school but also studied medicine. Ultimately, she became a psychiatrist who served patients with HIV and AIDS in the 1980s. 

The NYPD Columbia Association — the fraternal organization for Italian American NYPD members — honored Renzullo on April 26 at the Italian Charities of America building in Elmhurst. Holmstrom and family members accepted the honors. 

“She was very unassuming,” Holmstrom said. “But believe me, no amount of paper would be enough for her full obituary.” 

Renzullo’s parents, Sinibaldo and Giacomina, came to the U.S. from Italy in the 1920s. They raised their two American-born daughters, Frances and Vittoria, in a fourth-floor walk-up tenement in the Bronx. 

“My grandmother said the rosary every night,” Holmstrom said. “And it was church every Sunday. Whenever they had a novena or dedications, they were always there.” 

Holmstrom said her own mother got married when her aunt was about 15. 

The future police commander was an honor student at St. Martin of Tours Elementary School and Roosevelt High School in the Bronx. At Hunter College, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology. She also studied criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 

Renzullo had a passion for languages and spoke fluent English, Italian, and Spanish. She put these communication skills to good use working for the city’s Department of Social Services.

Holmstrom also excelled in languages and made a career teaching them to high school students in Yonkers. But, she noted, her aunt learned Japanese after she set social work aside and enlisted in the U.S. Army. Renzullo volunteered to care for orphans while stationed in Japan, Holmstrom said. 

“I used to speak Italian and Spanish with Vittoria,” she added. “And I remember she taught me how to count to 10 in Japanese.” 

Renzullo returned home after a three-year enlistment and joined the NYPD in the late 1950s. She received the Frank J. Keeler Award for Academic Excellence from the New York Police Academy. 

Holmstrom speculated that her aunt sought to continue the law enforcement legacy of her father who, in Italy, served as a “carabinieri” — similar to a state trooper in the U.S. 

Renzullo did not have a family of her own, but she doted on her sister’s children, Holmstrom said. 

“Vittoria used to take us to a lot of places,” she said. “When we were kids, Freedomland was an amusement park up in the Bronx. And in those days, taking a bus someplace in the Bronx at night, you’d worry about your safety. 

“But Vittoria, being a police officer, always carried a gun. So we never worried!” 

Holmstrom said Renzullo didn’t talk much about policing, although the family learned over time that she had some interesting assignments. 

For example, she helped form the security detail at the 1962 Democratic Party fundraiser with President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. That’s when actress Marilyn Monroe famously sang “Happy Birthday” to the president. 

Renzullo and other policewomen routinely participated in arrests involving female suspects, such as vice raids. She also worked the infamous case of a young woman, Linda Riss, whose estranged boyfriend hired thugs to throw lye in her face, Holmstrom said. 

But Renzullo, ever driven to seek knowledge and skills, became the first woman to attend the FBI Academy for law enforcement professionals worldwide. She earned the J. Edgar Hoover Award for academic excellence. 

Renzullo advanced from lieutenant to captain. She became the NYPD’s first female commander in 1976 and successfully led the 1st, 17th, and 48th Precincts. 

Renzullo traveled extensively and often brought Holmstrom with her. Together they visited relatives in Italy. But retirement from the NYPD freed her to serve elsewhere. 

Although she passed the bar examination, she found her next vocation in medicine. 

In the 1980s, she became a psychiatrist at St. Clare’s Hospital in Hell’s Kitchen — the first Manhattan hospital to care for HIV and AIDS patients. 

Meanwhile, Holmstrom said, not much was known about the disease back then, and working with the patients was considered risky. 

“I say she was very courageous,” Holmstrom said. “But she would never shy away from that. She certainly was a phenomenal person.” 

Holmstrom said her aunt was in her late 70s when she finally retired in Yonkers and focused on supporting her local parish and caring for rescue dogs, usually pit bulls or Doberman pinschers. 

“She would ask for older dogs,” Holmstrom said, “because she didn’t want the dog to outlive her.” 

Holmstrom concluded her aunt had accomplished all she wanted and had no regrets. 

“And she did it all through education,” the niece said. “My grandparents didn’t come to this country as rich people. They came here because they weren’t rich; they were looking for something better. 

“My grandmother used to say, ‘Go to school, and you’ll be on top of the world.’ They instilled that in Vittoria. Nobody handed her anything. She just did what she did 100%.” 

Despite her aunt’s modesty, Holmstrom said she is worthy of at least one more accolade. 

“I would love to pursue the idea of having the school named after her,” she said, “because she did all through education, the child of immigrants.”