Reforming the New York Police
Reforming the New York Police
Parkhurst and Graft. As chairman of the Society for the Prevention of Crime, Rev. Charles Parkhurst of Madison Square Presbyterian Church knew that illegal gambling and prostitution flourished in New York City in the 1890s. He suspected that the city’s police were paid to “look the other way.” The reverend was justified in his accusations: taverns paid the police $10,000 to open on Sunday; gambling dens set aside between $15 and $300 each month as insurance against raids; and a successful brothel would contribute $30,000 each year to a precinct captain. This kind of graft was so lucrative that there were two applicants for every one position on the thirty-eight-thousand-man police force. It was commonplace to buy rank, as in the case of one officer who paid his superiors $15,000 in order to receive a captain’s badge. Police Chief Thomas Byrnes presided over this network of extortion and was said to be worth $350,000.
Parkhurst’s Proof. On 14 February 1892 Parkhurst delivered a sermon on graft and corruption, charging New York’s police with allowing gambling, prostitution, and other illegal activities to flourish. A reporter happened to be in the church that day, and the next morning Parkhurst’s allegations were in the newspaper. City officials demanded that the clergyman prove his charges or face a libel suit. On 13 March he delivered another sermon on vice, this time with 284 affidavits that alleged that the New York police department permitted gambling and prostitution to prosper. Furthermore, Parkhurst claimed that police officials had the approval of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party organization of New York.
The Lexow Commission . In Albany, Republicans in the state legislature saw this as an opportunity to embarrass the Democrats in New York City and appointed a senate committee to investigate Parkhurst’s charges. Chaired by Republican Sen. Clarence Lexow, the committee was more eager to expose Democratic corruption than police misconduct. It produced a 10,576-page report that estimated that the police extorted over $10 million each year. The public learned enough from the Lexow investigation to call for a change, and in 1894 they elected social reformer William Strong as mayor of New York City. The next year Strong appointed Theodore Roosevelt to the New York City Board of Police Commissioners. Roosevelt was the well-known son of a social reformer and philanthropist, and in the early 1880s he had been a member of the state legislature. In 1886 Roosevelt had been the Republican candidate for mayor of New York. Appointed to the Civil Service Commission by President Benjamin Harrison, Roosevelt investigated corruption in the U.S. Post Office. The other members of the police commission elected Roosevelt as chairman because of his past experience and charismatic personality.
Roosevelt’s Strategy. Before meeting with his fellow commissioners, Roosevelt met with newspaper reporters Lincoln Steffens and Jacob Riis. He asked, “Now then, what’ll we do?” Roosevelt’s first action was to force out Chief Byrnes, who promptly resigned, and to begin formal investigations of other officers. During Roosevelt’s tenure as chairman, the city police department adopted a written civil service exam, placed a limit on the number of years an officer could work, and raised the physical requirements for applicants above those set for soldiers. These reforms forced senior officers out at triple the previous attrition, and hundreds of new recruits, who no longer had to pay bribes, joined the force at four times the prior rate. The police force was younger, healthier, and less political than it had ever been before. Bicycle patrols were also introduced and allowed the officers to move more quickly and efficiently than they could on horseback.
The Midnight Strolls. Riis described Roosevelt’s strategy as “publicity/publicity/publicity.” At two in the morning on 7 June 1895 Roosevelt and Riis strolled through Manhattan to check on how well the police were working. They did not see a single officer in a fifteen-block area and discovered some patrolmen quietly napping. One officer found relaxing in a restaurant did not recognize the commissioner and threatened to arrest him for vagrancy; fortunately for the policeman the restaurant owner knew Roosevelt. This surprise inspection had the desired effect. One newspaper reported that the police began watching for Roosevelt’s glasses and huge teeth coming through the darkness; another reported that “He Makes the Night Hideous for Sleeping Patrolmen.” On 14 June Roosevelt made his second night patrol and found a big improvement. He went to one station house to congratulate the captain for his well-patrolled precinct and was delighted to find on the bathroom wall a caricature of himself, with a warning that Roosevelt was watching.
The Sunday Excise Law. By 1895 the Sunday Excise Law, which forbade the sale of intoxicating liquors on the Sabbath, had become a lucrative source of graft for the New York City police department. Saloons that paid a “fee” to the local police precinct could remain open on Sunday. Roosevelt knew that when people ignored one law, it was hard for them to obey others; he was therefore determined to enforce the Sunday Excise Law. Unlike the midnight strolls and the investigation into corrupt police officers, which promised safer streets for all citizens, Roosevelt’s adherence to the Sunday Excise Law caused him many enemies. In July a judge ruled that the law forbade the sale of all drinks, not just alcoholic ones, in saloons on Sunday; therefore the police would have to prevent New Yorkers from drinking lemonade and iced tea. As the summer of 1895 stretched on, New Yorkers wondered why Roosevelt was punishing them I for the corruption of the police. Many began speculating about when the commissioner would be shot, and on 5 August he received a letter bomb.
Roosevelt Defends His Policy. The police commissioner defended the Sunday closings in a meeting of the Good Government Club, a civic organization made up of German Americans. He could not have found a more hostile audience: Sunday at the beer garden was a German tradition, and these citizens, otherwise law-abiding, resented being told they were breaking the law. Roosevelt explained that the only purpose of the law was to provide graft and to keep the saloons as “subservient allies to Tammany Hall.” He noted that the law had previously been enforced only against saloon keepers who could not pay off the police or those too honest to do so. Roosevelt warned that the real problem was not the sale of liquor, but corruption of the municipal government. “Where justice is bought, where favor is the price of money or political influence, the rich man held his own and the poor man went to the wall. Now all are treated exactly alike.” Moreover, he declared that if the law was unpopular the legislature should repeal it. Otherwise, “it is the plain duty of a public officer to stand steadfastly for the honest enforcement of the law.” Later in the summer when the Liquor Sellers Association came out in support of strict enforcement of the law and vowed to expel any member who violated it, Roosevelt knew he had won the battle.
Roosevelt’s Reputation. Roosevelt’s stand did not win him warm personal support, but his integrity was beyond question. British novelist Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, wrote that Roosevelt “must be President some day. A man you can’t cajole, can’t frighten, can’t buy.” Others were less impressed. The New York Herald reprinted Roosevelt’s speeches, putting every “I” in bold type, emphasizing how often Roosevelt referred to himself. Lawyer Abraham Hummel, of the criminal defense team Howe and Hummel, said “Roosevelt, Roosevelt — when they bury him, they can write on his tombstone, Here lies all the civic virtue there every was.’” Roosevelt himself enjoyed the controversy. In September the United Societies for Liberal Sunday Laws held a protest rally and parade, to which they jokingly invited Roosevelt, whom they planned to burn in effigy. Roosevelt, to their surprise, attended the rally and thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle. He left with two souvenir banners: “Send the Police Czar to Russia” and “Roosevelt’s Razzle-Dazzle Reform Racket.”
Greener Pastures. Roosevelt, a man of great restless energy, turned his attention elsewhere once he had “cleaned house” at the New York City Police Department. He campaigned for presidential candidate William McKinley in 1896 and in 1897 resigned as police commissioner to become undersecretary of the navy. Years later, after Roosevelt had served as governor of New York, vice president, and president of the United States, former police commissioner Avery Andrews stated: “It may truthfully be said that Theodore
Roosevelt at no time in his career fought more effectively for the basic principles of free government than he fought for them as New York City Police Commissioner.”
Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (New York: Coward, McCann ÔcGeoghegan, 1979).