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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
In 1851 the mayor of Boston, for purely political reasons, tried to put one Karney AIcGinniskin on the police force. The rest of the men protested, and the reason they gave said much about their self-image. They objected to AIcGinniskin not because he was Irish but because he was “a common calmian.” In New York the Irish invasion had by that time gathered far more momentum. In 1855 the native-American board of aldermen were accusing the chief of police of having six hundred “foreign-born” men on his force—most of them Irish. Nearly two thirds of the men Fernando Wood appointed in a single year had Irish names. Irish dominance of the force persisted for another eighty years in New York; as late as 1933 they numbered 7,204 in a force of twenty thousand. Even in 1965 the Emerald Society, the Irish organization of the New York police, had 8,500 members, go per cent of the force.
The Irish were ideally suited to play the role that politics had indicted on the police—that of bulfer between old and new Americans. For one thing, many of the immigrants were “their own kind": these new policemen, too, had come from a nation where discriminatory English laws were held in small respect. The Irish cop was therefore accustomed to making distinctions between “good” and “bad” laws that the average German or Scandinavian would have found it difficult if not impossible to make.
The Irish cops were tough on what they considered real crime. John A. Kennedy, who became head of New York’s force in 1857, did more to modernize police work than almost anyone else in the nineteenth century. Using the newly invented camera, lie began the nation’s first rogues’ gallery; he also created a genuine detective force, a harbor police, and a system of telegraphic’ communications to link his station houses. Shrewdly, he selected his biggest and best-looking men for the “Broadway squad,” where they were regularly seen by the city’s most influential citizens and where they soon won a reputation for gallantry by protecting laches from the perils of the street’s careering hacks and lumbering wagons.
Kennedy and his police coped magnificently with the most serious challenge to law and order in American history—the New York draft riots of 1863 (see “New York’s Bloodiest Week” in the June, 1959, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). Governor Horatio Seymour, whose criticisms of the draft had helped spark the three-clay upheaval, said the riots were “put down mainly by the energy, boldness and skill of the Police Department. In saying this I am certainly not influenced by prcjudice, for the force was politically, and in some degree personally, unfriendly to myself.” By this Seymour meant that Kennedy and many of his men were Republicans.
But this same force did practically nothing to enforce the nativist reform laws. New York, for example, had twenty thousand prostitutes during the Civil War; enforcement of the state s liquor laws was so lax that in 1866 only 754 out of 9,250 saloons had bothered to take out licenses.
Although this was undoubtedly the Irish application of the watchman tradition at work, another factor could not be ignored. For justification of their policy the police had only to point to the other arm of the law-enforcement process—the courts. They were totally in the grip of politics: judges were elected annually, and it was generally acknowledged that any magistrate who tried to enforce all the laws would be committing political suicide. A writer who attempted an expose of New York City’s judiciary in the 1860’s said it was so corrupt that the greatest city in America was on the brink of “hopeless barbarism.” In 1867 twenty New York policemen were injured in a Saint Patrick’s Day riot, but not a single rioter was sentenced to jail: all those arrested were released on trivial bail. District Attorney A. Oakey Hall—Boss Tweed’s future mayor —publicly boasted that in a typical year there were as many as ten thousand indictments (most of them liquor violations) that he did not bother to prosecute, for political reasons.
Underenforcement of the law as a policy left dangerous amounts of discretion to the police. After the Tweed scandals in New York, reformers were frequently on the warpath. This made protection risky, and the police began asking lor their share ol the proceeds of after-hours saloons, gambling joints, and brothels. It did not take long for this habit to get out of control. For New York and the nation the grim awakening came in the Lexow healings of 1894. The counsel for this state investigating committee, named for its chairman, State Senator Clarence Lexow, was John W. Goff, a forty-six-year-old lawyer born in County Wexford, Ireland. As irascible as lie was honest, Goff detested Tammany Hall, and lie soon converted his witness chair into “Goff’s Gridiron” for the New York Police Department.