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The Policeman’s Lot
Benevolent father figure? Bloody-handed Cossack? Slow-witted flatfoot? Irish grafter? Brave but underpaid public servant? Check your prejudice against this inquiry into police history
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
The result was an almost total exposure of the police department to political pressure. Policemen and aldermen were in effect running on the same ticket each year, and the policeman naturally went all out to protect his bread and butter. He made no attempt whatsoever to interfere with the violent election tactics of his day; indeed, sometimes he engaged in dub-swinging of his own on behalf of his political protector. Tin’s brand of neighborhood control soon reduced the New York police force almost to chaos. When they were certain of political protection, policemen assaulted superior officers, refused to go on patrol, prevented other policemen from arresting their friends, and regularly extorted money from prisoners. In 1857 the district attorney of New York County complained, “There is really no head of police at all”; and one public-spirited citizen, James W. Gerard, lamented, “They inspire no respect, they create no fear.”
There was only one bit of wisdom applied in the appointment of these early policemen—their pay. From the first, they were obviously intended to be a cut above the lower classes and even the lower middle classes. They got twice the going salary of a common laborer and more than even a master craftsman. This was the main reason policemen declined to wear a uniform: they felt that it made them resemble army regulars—who were recruited from the lowest social class. It took desperate measures to persuade police to don even a rudimentary uniform. Only the advent of the Civil War, which made a uniform respectable and even patriotic, resolved the dilemma.
Pleas from reformers soon persuaded legislatures and common councils to give policemen tenure for life, dependent on good behavior. But this only plunged them deeper into politics, by making the job an even juicier patronage plum. In a travesty of the democratic process, San Francisco, Chicago, Cleveland, and several other cities required the chief of police to run for office. State legislatures duelled city councils for the control of police departments, with the focus of the struggle almost always warfare between native Americans and immigrants.
In New York the Republican-dominated state legislature snatched control of the police from Mayor Fernando Wood in 1857 and created a “metropolitan” force that policed New York and surrounding counties, including Westchester. At one point Wood’s “municipals” and the new “metropolitans” met in a clubswinging melee on the steps of City Hall. In 1870 Boss William Marcy Tweed literally bought control back from the state. In Maryland it was a Democratic legislature that in 1860 wrested control of the Baltimore police from antislavery Republicans, in Illinois it was a Republican legislature that deprived the Democratic Chicago city government of police control in 1861. In Cleveland, on the other hand, the citizens in iSGG begged the legislature to step in because, in the words of one local newspaper, “the Police Department was a huge political machine.” With the chief of police elected by popular vote, “thieves and bummers … were the masters of the police instead of the police being their masters.”
Today we hear a great deal about the policeman as a man caught between black and white, or between American and Puerto Rican, cultures. This was precisely where he was a hundred years ago, except that then he was caught between reform-minded native Americans and European immigrants. There was, admittedly, much to reform in the new arrivals, but instead of attacking the roots of their troubles—slum housing and starvation wages—native Americans struck at the external results of these woes: the immigrants’ widespread drunkenness and criminality. This reformist spirit swiftly escalated into a social perfectionism that still haunts American society—an insistence that the nation as a whole should achieve an impeccable standard of morality. Close the saloons (at least on Sunday), eliminate the brothels and gambling dens, and those who enjoy such pleasures will swiftly vanish. So went the fatuous reasoning, and a native American triumph at the polls in the early days of the police meant a new attempt to shut down the policy shops and enforce Sunday-closing ordinances. Hut in the era ol the six-day work week Sunday was the only day the immigrant had a chance to relax; even the normally peaceful Germans were prone to riot when the police tried to close their beer halls.
Confronted with an impossible situation, the police force simply decided to ignore such laws. They emphasized instead the old night-watchman tradition and let the supposedly evil saloonkeepers and policy runners operate as long as they did so quietly. As for the brothels, the best people seemed to want them around, and who were the policemen to argue with their social superiors? The main reason the police were able to achieve this feat of noncnforcement with a minimum of social strain was that unique phenomenon in American police history—the Irish cop.