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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
Witness after witness testified to having paid captains and inspectors sums ranging from a few dollars to several thousand dollars a year. Appointments to the force, soft details, and promotions were auctioned olf by Tammany on the same escalating scale—from three hundred dollars for a patrolman s job to fifteen thousand dollars lor a captaincy. Each captain had a “wardman,” who toured the precinct monthly collecting the take and retaining a hefty slice for himself. One witness reported six hundred policy shops running openly in the very teeth of the investigation. “Green goods men” —swindlers who fobbed olf counterfeit money on upstate rubes—made as much as eight thousand dollars a day, with the co-operation and consequent enrichment of the local precinct. The police take from all sources was estimated at seven million dollars a year.
Lexow’s was the first of a series of investigations of the New York Police Department over the next twenty years. Steadily, often with severe lapses when Tammany regained control, corruption as a police way of life was eliminated, and genuine civil service standards of appointment and promotion were enforced in the department. The Police Academy was begun, and New York’s force began to deserve its nickname, The Finest, given to it by Superintendent George Washington Walling in 1875 but used with derision during the first several decades, when the very possibility of an honest cop was mocked on the popular stage.
Other cities followed New York’s lead, as they had done in police matters in the past. By 1920 Raymond B. Fosdick, one of our first serious students of police problems, could write that the scandals uncovered by the Lexow Committee “would be almost inconceivable today.” Inevitably, the high noon of the native American perfectionist spirit, the Prohibition era, swung the corruption pendulum in the other direction. In 1931 Bruce Smith, another expert on police problems, found Chicago’s force so hopelessly enmeshed in politics and graft that he suggested firing the entire department and starting all over again.
Chicago’s police continued to spiral downward until massive scandals in the early 1960’s prompted the city to bring in Orlando W. Wilson, dean of the University of California’s School of Criminology, to give the force a total overhaul. But Chicago’s was, by and large, a malodorous exception to the general rule: in 1967 the nine-volume report of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice concluded that “the corruption at all levels … that prevailed in many police departments during the era of prohibition is largely a thing of the past.”
But making the policeman honest only created another problem. Cut off from illicit income, policemen swiftly began complaining about their inadequate salaries. State legislatures and city councils are not very efficient bodies, and they had let police pay fall far behind the steadily rising scale of the rest of American wage earners. The same thing happened in England, and that nonpareil of police forces, the London Metropolitans, actually went out on strike in 1918. In 1919 the Boston police, exasperated by callous disregard of their numerous appeals, walked off the job en masse (see “The Strike That Made A President” in the October, 1963, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). This did not solve the problem of police salaries, however, and the politicians have not solved it yet. In 1967 the special task force set up by the President’s commission to study the police found the average patrolman’s annual salary a little over $5,500 in smaller cities and !7,000 in larger ones —about half what it should be to attract good men.
A few years after O. W. Wilson took charge of the Chicago force, the International Association of Chiefs of Police rated the Chicago department “the best equipped, best administered police force in the United States.” Yet this same force was involved in the most sensational case of alleged police brutality in modern times—the assault on the anti-war demonstrators at the Democratic convention in 1968. Violent police tactics against student protesters at Columbia and other universities have further dramatized this issue. Again, we need to take a backward look at the way police have used force in the past.
The first thing that becomes clear is the fact that they have not been the initiators of violence. The first policemen were not even armed with revolvers—their only weapon was a club. When thugs began using revolvers, some New York police began carrying small “virtue pistols"—so called because women, often prostitutes, carried them for self-protection. In 1858 Superintendent Kennedy made the revolver an official part of his men’s equipment. In many other cities, such as Boston, the policeman’s armament remained limited to the club until the 188o’s.