Municipal Administration: The New York Police Force

America’s 26th president described his efforts to combat corruption and crime as the New York City Police Commissioner.

In New York, in the fall of 1894, Tammany Hall was overthrown by a coalition composed partly of the regular Republicans, partly of anti-Tammany Democrats, and partly of Independents. Under the last head must be included a great many men who in national politics habitually act with one or the other of the two great parties, but who feel that in municipal politics good citizens should act independently. The tidal wave, which was running high against the Democratic party, was undoubtedly very influential in bringing about the anti-Tammany victory; but the chief factor in producing the result was the widespread anger and disgust felt by decent citizens at the corruption which under the sway of Tammany had honey-combed every department of the city government, but especially the police force. A few well-meaning persons have at times tried to show that this corruption was not actually so very great. In reality it would be difficult to overestimate the utter rottenness of many branches of the city administration. There were a few honorable and high-minded Tammany officials, and there were a few bureaus which were conducted with some measure of efficiency, although dishonestly. But the corruption had become so wide-spread as seriously to impair the work of administration, and to bring us back within appreciable distance of the days of Tweed.

The chief centre of corruption was the police department. No man not intimately acquainted with both the lower and the humbler sides of New York life—for there is a wide distinction between the two—can realize how far this corruption extended. Except in rare instances, where prominent politicians made demands which could not be refused, both promotions and appointments to- wards the close of Tammany rule were almost solely for money, and the prices were discussed with cynical frankness. There was a well-recognized tariff of charges, ranging from two or three hundred dollars for appointment as a patrol-man, to twelve or fifteen thousand dollars for promotion to the position of captain. The money was reimbursed to those who paid it by an elaborate system of blackmail. This was chiefly carried on at the expense of gamblers, liquor sellers, and keepers of disorderly houses; but every form of vice and crime contributed more or less, and a great many respectable people who were ignorant or timid were blackmailed under pretense of forbidding or allowing them to violate obscure ordinances, and the like. From top to bottom the New York police force was utterly demoralized by the gangrene of such a system, where venality and blackmail went hand in hand with the basest forms of low ward politics, and where the policeman, the ward politician, the liquor seller, and the criminal alternately preyed on one another and helped one another to prey on the general public.

In May, 1895, I was made president of the newly appointed police board, whose duty it was to cut out the chief source of civic corruption in New York by cleansing the police department. The police board consisted of four members; all four of the new men were appointed by Mayor Strong, the reform mayor, who had taken office in January.

With me was associated as treasurer of the board Mr. Avery D. Andrews. He was a Democrat and I a Republican, and there were questions of national politics on which we disagreed widely; but such questions could not enter into the administration of the New York police, if that administration was to be both honest and efficient; and as a matter of fact, during my two years’ service, Mr. Andrews and I worked in absolute harmony on every important question of policy which arose. The prevention of blackmail and corruption, the repression of crime and violence, the safeguarding of life and property, securing honest elections, and rewarding efficient and punishing inefficient police service, are not, and cannot properly be made, questions of party difference. In other words, such a body as the police force of New York can be wisely and, properly administered only upon a non-partisan basis, and both Mr. Andrews and myself were quite incapable of managing it on any other. There were many men who helped us in our work; and among them all, the man who helped us most, by advice and counsel, by stalwart, loyal friendship, and by ardent championship of all that was good against all that was evil, was Jacob A. Riis, the author of How the Other Half Lives.

Certain of the difficulties we had to face were merely those which confronted the entire reform administration in its management of the municipality. Many worthy people expected that this reform administration would work an absolute revolution, not merely in the government, but in the minds of the citizens as a whole; and felt vaguely that they had been cheated because there was not an immediate cleansing of every bad influence in civic or social life. Moreover, the different bodies forming the victorious coalition felt the pressure of conflicting interests and hopes. The mass of effective strength was given by the Republican organization, and not only all the enrolled party workers, but a great number of well-meaning Republicans who had no personal interest at stake expected the administration to be used to further the fortunes of their own party. Another great body of the administration’s supporters took a diametrically opposite view, and believed that the municipality should be governed without the slightest reference whatever to party. In theory they were quite right, and I cordially sympathized with them; but in reality the victory could not have been won by the votes of this class of people alone, and it was out of the question to put their theories into complete effect. Like all other men who actually try to do things instead of confining themselves to saying how they should be done, the members of the new city government were obliged to face the facts, and to do the best they could in the effort to get some kind of good result out of the conflicting forces. They had to disregard party so far as was possible; and yet they could not afford to disregard all party connections so utterly as to bring the whole government to grief.

In addition to these two large groups of supporters, there were other groups, also possessing influence, who expected to receive recognition distinctly as Democrats, but as anti-Tammany Democrats; and such members of any victorious coalition are always sure to overestimate their own services, and to feel that they are ill-treated.

It is of course an easy thing to show on paper that the municipal administration should have been conducted without any regard whatever to party lines, and if the bulk of the people saw things with entire clearness, the truth would seem so obvious as to need no demonstration. But the great majority of those who voted the new administration into power neither saw this nor realized it, and in politics, as in life generally, conditions must be faced as they are, and not as they ought to be. The regular Democratic organization, not only in the city, but in the State, was completely under the dominion of Tammany Hall and its allies, and they fought us at every step with wholly unscrupulous hatred. In the State and the city alike, the Democratic campaign was waged against the reform administration in New York. The Tammany officials who were still left in power in the city, headed by the comptroller, Mr. Fitch, did everything in their power to prevent the new administration from giving the city an efficient government. The Democratic members of the legislature acted as their faithful allies in all such efforts. Whatever was accomplished by the reform administration—and a very great deal was accomplished—was due to the action of the Republican majority in the Constitutional Convention, and especially to the Republican governor, Mr. Morton, and the Republican majority in the legislature, who enacted laws giving to the newly chosen mayor, Mr. Strong, the great powers necessary for properly discharging the duties of his office. Without these laws the mayor would have been very nearly powerless. He certainly could not have done a tenth part of what actually was done.

Now, of course, the Republican politicians who gave Mayor Strong all these powers, in the teeth of violent Democratic opposition to every law for the betterment of civic conditions in New York, ought not, under ideal conditions, to have expected the slightest reward. They should have been contented with showing the public that their only purpose was to serve the public, and that the Republican party wished no better reward than the consciousness of having done its duty by the State and the city. But as a whole they had not reached such a standard. There were some who had reached it; there were others who, though perfectly honest, and wishing to see good government prosper, yet felt that somehow it ought to be combined with party advantage of a tangible sort; and finally there were yet others who were not honest at all and cared nothing for the victory, unless it resulted in some way to their own personal advantage. In short, the problem presented was of the kind which usually is presented when men are to be dealt with as a mass. The mayor and his associates had to keep in touch with the Republican party, or they could have done nothing; and, on the other hand, there was much that the Republican machine asked which could not be granted, because a surrender on certain vital points meant the abandonment of the whole effort to obtain good government.

The undesirability of breaking with the Republican organization was shown by what happened in the management of the police department. This, being the great centre of power, was the especial object of the Republican machine leaders. Toward the close of Tammany rule, of the four police commissioners, two had been machine Republicans, whose actions were in no wise to be distinguished from those of their Tammany colleagues; and immediately after the new board was appointed to office the machine got through the legislature the so-called bi-partisan or Lexow law, under which the department is at present conducted; and a more foolish or vicious law was never enacted by any legislative body. It modeled the government of the police force some- what on the lines of the Polish Parliament, and it was avowedly designed to make it difficult to get effective action. It provided for a four-headed board, in which it was hard to get a majority anyhow; but, lest we should get such a majority, it gave each member power to veto the actions of his colleagues in certain very important matters; and, lest we should do too much when we were unanimous, it provided that the chief, our nominal subordinate, should have entirely independent action in the most essential matters, and should be practically irremovable except for proved corruption, so that he was responsible to nobody. The mayor was similarly hindered from removing any police commissioner: when one of our colleagues began obstructing the work of the board, and thwarting its effort to reform the force, the mayor in vain strove to turn him out. In short, there was a complete divorce of power from responsibility, and it was exceedingly difficult either to do anything, or to place anywhere the responsibility for not doing it.

If by any reasonable concessions, if indeed by the performance of any act not incompatible with our oaths of office, we could have, stood on good terms with the machine, we would assuredly have made the effort, even at the cost of sacrificing many of our ideals; and in almost any other department we could probably have avoided a break; but in the police force such a compromise was not possible. What was demanded of us usually took some such form as the refusal to enforce certain laws, or the protection of certain lawbreakers, or the promotion of the least fit men to positions of high power and grave responsibility; and on such points it was not possible to yield. We were obliged to treat all questions that arose purely on their merits, without reference to the desires of the politicians. We went into this course with our eyes open, for we knew the trouble it would cause us personally, and, what was far more important, the way in which our efforts for reform would consequently be hampered. However, there was no alternative, and we had to abide by the result. We had counted the cost before we adopted our plan, and we followed it resolutely to the end. We could not accomplish all that we should have liked to accomplish, for we were shackled by preposterous legislation, and by the opposition and intrigues of the basest machine politicians, which cost us the support, sometimes of one, and sometimes of both, of our colleagues. Nevertheless, the net result of our two years of work was that we did more to increase the efficiency and honesty of the police department than had ever previously been done in its history.

Besides suffering, in aggravated form, from the difficulties which beset the course of the entire administration, the police board had to encounter—and honest and efficient police boards must always encounter—certain special and peculiar difficulties. It is not a pleasant thing to deal with criminals and purveyors of vice. It is very rough work, and it cannot always be done in a nice manner. The man with the night stick, the man in the blue coat with the helmet, can keep order and repress open violence on the streets; but most kinds of crime and vice are ordinarily carried on furtively and by stealth, perhaps at night, perhaps behind closed doors. It is possible to reach them only by the employment of the man in plain clothes, the detective. Now the function of the detective is primarily that of the spy, and it is always easy to arouse feeling against a spy. It is absolutely necessary to employ him. Ninety per cent of the most dangerous criminals and purveyors of vice cannot be reached in any other way. But the average citizen who does not think deeply fails to realize the need for any such employment. In a vague way he desires vice and crime put down; but, also in a vague way, he objects to the only possible means by which they can be put down. It is easy to mislead him into denouncing what is unavoidably done in order to carry out the very policy for which he is clamoring.

The Tammany officials of New York, headed by the comptroller, made a systematic effort to excite public hostility against the police for their warfare on vice. The lawbreaking liquor seller, the keeper of disorderly houses, and the gambler had been influential allies of Tammany, and head contributors to its campaign chest. Naturally Tammany fought for them; and the effective way in which to carry on such a fight was to portray with gross exaggeration and misstatement the methods necessarily employed by every police force which honestly endeavors to do its work. The methods are unpleasant, just as the methods employed in any surgical operation are unpleasant; and the Tammany champions were able to arouse a good deal of feeling against the police board for precisely the same reason that a century ago it was easy to arouse what were called “doctors’ mobs” against surgeons who cut up dead bodies. In neither case is the operation attractive, and it is one which readily lends itself to denunciation; but in both cases the action must be taken if there is a real intention to get at the disease.

Tammany found its most influential allies in the sensational newspapers. Of all the forces that tend for evil in a great city like New York, probably no other is so potent as the sensational press. Until one has had experience with them it is difficult to realize the reckless indifference to truth or decency displayed by papers such as the two that have the largest circulation in New York city. Scandal forms the breath of the nostrils of such papers, and they are quite as ready to create as to describe it. To sustain law and order is humdrum, and does not furnish material for flaunting woodcuts; but if the editor will stoop, and make his subordinates stoop, to raking the gutters of human depravity, to upholding the wrongdoer and furiously assailing what is upright and honest, lie can make money, just as other types of pander make it. The man who is to do honorable work in any form of civic politics must make up his mind (and if he is a man of properly robust character he will make it up without difficulty) to treat the assaults of papers like these with absolute indifference, and to go his way unheeding. He will have to make up his mind to be criticised also, sometimes justly, and more often unjustly, even by decent people; and he must not be so thin-skinned as to mind such criticism overmuch.

In administering the police force, we found, as might be expected, that there was no need of genius, nor indeed of any very unusual qualities. What was required was the exercise of the plain, ordinary virtues, of a rather commonplace type, which all good citizens should be expected to possess. Common sense, common honesty, courage, energy, resolution, readiness to learn, and a desire to be as pleasant with everybody as was compatible with a strict performance of duty, — these were the qualities most called for. We soon found that, in spite of the widespread corruption which had obtained in the New York police department, most of the men were heartily desirous of being honest. There were some who were incurably dishonest, just as there were some who had remained decent in spite of terrific temptation and pressure, but the great mass came in between. Although not possessing the stamina to war against corruption when the odds seemed well-nigh hopeless, they were, nevertheless, heartily glad to be de- cent, and they welcomed the change to a system under which they were rewarded for doing well, and punished for doing ill.

Our methods for restoring order and discipline were simple, and hardly less so were our methods for securing efficiency. We made frequent personal inspections, especially at night, going anywhere, at any time. In this way we soon got an idea of whom among our upper subordinates we could trust and whom we could not. We then proceeded to punish those who were guilty of shortcomings, and to reward those who did well, refusing to pay any heed whatever to anything except the man’s own character and record. A very few promotions and dismissals sufficed to show our subordinates that at last they were dealing with superiors who meant what they said, and that the days of political pull were over while we had the power. The effect was immediate. The decent men took heart, and those who were not decent feared longer to offend. The morale of the entire force improved steadily.

A similar course was followed in reference to the relations between the police and citizens generally. There had formerly been much complaint of the brutal treatment by police of innocent citizens. This was stopped peremptorily by the obvious expedient of dismissing from the force the first two or three men who were found guilty of brutality. On the other hand, we made the force understand that in the event of any emergency requiring them to use their weapons against either a mob or an individual criminal, the police board backed them up without reservation. Our sympathy was for the friends, and not the foes, of order. If a mob threatened violence, we were glad to have the mob hurt. If a criminal showed fight, we expected the officer to use any weapon that was requisite to overcome him on the instant, and even, if it became needful, to take life. All that the board required was to be convinced that the necessity really existed. We did not possess a particle of that maudlin sympathy for the criminal, disorderly, and lawless classes which is such a particularly unhealthy sign of social development; and we were determined that the improvement in the fighting efficiency of the police should keep pace with the improvement in their moral tone.

To break up the system of blackmail and corruption was less easy. It was not at all difficult to protect decent people in their rights, and this result was effected at once. But the criminal who is blackmailed has a direct interest in paying the blackmailer, and it is not easy to get information about it. Nevertheless, we put a complete stop to most of the blackmail by the simple process of rigorously enforcing the laws, not only against crime, but against vice.

It was the enforcement of the liquor law which caused most excitement. In New York, we suffer from the altogether too common tendency to enact any law which a certain section of the community wants, and then to allow that law to become very nearly a dead-letter if any other section of the community objects to it. The multiplication of laws by the legislature and their partial enforcement by the executive authorities go hand in hand, and offer one of the many serious problems with which we are confronted in striving to better civic conditions. New York State felt that liquor should not be sold on Sunday. The larger part of New York city wished to drink liquor on Sunday. Any man who studies the social condition of the poor knows that liquor works more ruin than any other one cause. He knows also, however, that it is simply impracticable to extirpate the habit entirely, and that to attempt too much often results merely in accomplishing too little; and he knows, moreover, that for a man alone to drink whiskey in a bar-room is one thing, and for men with their families to drink light wines or beer in respectable restaurants is quite a different thing. The average citizen, who does not think at all, and the average politician of the baser sort, who thinks only about his own personal advantage, find it easiest to disregard these facts, and to pass a liquor law which will please the temperance people, and then trust to the police department to enforce it with such laxity as to please the intemperate.

The results of this pleasing system were evident in New York when our board came into power. The Sunday liquor law was by no means a dead-letter in New York city. On the contrary, no less than eight thousand arrests for its violation had been made under the Tammany régime the year before we came in. It was very much alive, but it was executed only against those who either had no political pull or refused to pay blackmail.

The liquor business does not stand on the same footing with other occupations. It always tends to produce criminality in the population at large, and lawbreaking among the saloon-keepers themselves. It is absolutely necessary to supervise it rigidly, and to impose restrictions upon the traffic. In large cities the traffic cannot be stopped, but the evils can at least be minimized. In New York, the saloon-keepers have always stood high among professional politicians. Nearly two thirds of the political leaders of Tammany Hall have been in the liquor business at one time or another. The saloon is the natural club and meeting-place for the ward heelers and leaders, and the bar-room politician is one of the most common and best recognized factors in local government. The saloon-keepers are always hand in glove with the professional politicians, and occupy toward them such a position as is not held by any other class of men. The influence they wield in local politics has always been very great, and until our board took office no man ever dared seriously to threaten them for their flagrant violations of the law. The powerful and influential saloon-keeper was glad to see the shops of his neighbors closed, for it gave him business. On the other hand, a corrupt police captain, or the corrupt politician who controlled him, could always extort money from a saloon-keeper by threatening to close his place and let his neighbor’s remain open. Gradually the greed of corrupt police officials and of corrupt politicians grew by what it fed on, until they began to blackmail all but the very most influential liquor sellers; and as liquor sellers were numerous and the profits of the liquor business great, the amount collected was enormous.

The reputable saloon-keepers themselves found this condition of blackmail and political favoritism almost intolerable. The law which we found on the statute books had been put on by a Tammany legislature, three years earlier. A couple of months after we took office, Mr. J. P. Smith, the editor of the liquor dealers organ, The Wine and Spirit Gazette, gave out the following interview, which is of such an extraordinary character that I insert it almost in full: —

“The governor, as well as the legislature of 1892, was elected upon distinct pledges that relief would be given by the Democratic party to the liquor dealers, especially of the cities of the State. In accordance with this promise, a Sunday-opening clause was inserted in the excise bill of 1892. The governor then said that he could not approve the Sunday-opening clause; whereupon the Liquor Dealers Association, which had charge of the bill, struck the Sunday-opening clause out. After Governor Hill had been elected for the second term, I had several interviews with him on that very subject. He told me, ‘You know I am the friend of the liquor dealers and will go to almost any length to help them, and give them relief; but do not ask me to recommend to the legislature the passage of the law opening the saloons on Sunday. I cannot do it, for it will ruin the Democratic party in the State.’ He gave the same interview to various members of the State Liquor Dealers Association, who waited upon him for the purpose of getting relief from the blackmail of the police, stating that the lack of having the Sunday question properly regulated was at the bot- tom of the trouble., Blackmail had been brought to such a state of perfection, and had become so oppressive to the liquor dealers themselves, that they communicated first with Governor Hill and then with Mr. Croker. The Wine and Spirit Gazette had taken up the subject because of gross discrimination made by the police in the enforcement of the Sunday-closing law. The paper again and again called upon the police commissioners to either uniformly enforce the law or uniformly disregard it. A committee of the Central Association of Liquor Dealers of this, city then took up the matter and called upon Police Commissioner Martin.1 An agreement was then made between the leaders of Tammany Hall and the liquor dealers, according to which the monthly blackmail paid to the police should be discontinued in return for political support. In other words, the retail dealers should bind themselves to solidly support the Tammany ticket in consideration of the discontinuance of the monthly blackmail by the police. This agreement was carried out. Now what was the consequence? If the liquor dealer, after the monthly blackmail ceased, showed any signs of independence, the Tammany Hall district leader would give the tip to the police captain, and that man would be pulled and arrested on the following Sunday.”

Continuing, Mr. Smith inveighed against the law, but said: —

“The (present) police commissioners are honestly endeavoring to have the law impartially carried out. They are no respecters of persons. And our information from all classes of liquor dealers is that the rich and the poor, the influential and the uninfluential, are required equally to obey the law.”

There is really some difficulty in commenting upon the statements of this interview, statements which were never denied.

The law was not in the least a dead-letter; it was enforced, but it was corruptly and partially enforced. It was a prominent factor in the Tammany scheme of government. It afforded a most effective means for blackmailing a large portion of the liquor sellers, and for the wholesale corruption of the police department. The high Tammany officials and police captains and patrolmen blackmailed and bullied the small liquor sellers without a pull, and turned them into abject slaves of Tammany Hall. On the other hand, the wealthy and politically influential liquor sellers controlled the police, and made or marred captains, sergeants, and patrolmen at their pleasure. In some of the precincts most of the saloons were closed; in others almost all were open. The rich and powerful liquor seller, who had fallen under the ban of the police or the ward boss, was not allowed to violate the law at all.

Under these circumstances, the new police board had one of two courses to follow: We could either instruct the police to allow all the saloon-keepers to become lawbreakers, or else we could instruct them to allow none to be law-breakers. We followed the latter course, because we had some regard for our oaths of office. For two or three months we had a regular fight, and on Sundays had to employ half the men to enforce the liquor law; the Tammany legislators had drawn the law so as to make it easy of enforcement for purposes of blackmail, but not easy of enforcement generally, certain provisions being deliberately inserted with the intention to make it difficult of universal execution. However, when once the liquor sellers and their allies understood that we had not the slightest intention of being bullied, threatened, or cajoled out of following the course which we had laid down, resistance practically ceased. During the year after we took office, the number of arrests for violation of the Sunday liquor law sank to about one half of what they had been during the last year of the Tammany rule; and yet the saloons were practically closed, whereas under Tammany most of them had been open. We adopted no new methods, save in so far as honesty could be called a new method. We did not enforce the law with unusual severity; we merely enforced it against the man with a pull just as much as against the man without a pull. We refused to discriminate in favor of influential lawbreakers.

The professional politicians of low type, the liquor sellers, the editors of some German newspapers, and the sensational press generally, attacked us with a ferocity which really verged on insanity. We went our way without regarding this opposition, and gave a very wholesome lesson to the effect that a law should not be put on the statute books if it was not meant to be enforced, and that even an excise law could be honestly enforced in New York if the public officials so desired. The rich brewers and liquor sellers, who had made money rapidly by violating the excise law with the corrupt connivance of the police, raved with anger, and every corrupt politician and newspaper in the city gave them clamorous assistance; but the poor man, and notably the poor man’s wife and children, benefited very greatly by what we did. The hospitals found that their Monday labors were lessened by nearly one half, owing to the startling diminution in cases of injury due to drunken brawls; and the work of the magistrates who sat in the city courts on Monday, for the trial of the offenders of the preceding twenty-four hours, was correspondingly decreased; while many a tenement-house family spent Sunday in the country because for the first time the head of the family could not use up his money in getting drunk. The one all important element in good citizenship in our country is obedience to law, and nothing is more needed than the resolute enforcement of law. This we gave.

There was no species of mendacity to which our opponents did not resort in the effort to break us down in our purpose. For weeks they eagerly repeated the tale that the saloons were as wide open as ever; but they finally abandoned this because the counsel for the Liquor Dealers Association admitted in open court, at the time when we secured the conviction of thirty of his clients, and thereby brought the fight to an end, that over nine tenths of the liquor dealers had been rendered bankrupt by our stopping that illegal trade which gave them the best portion of their revenue. Our opponents then took the line that by devoting our attention to enforcing the liquor law we permitted crime to increase. This of course offered a very congenial field for newspapers like the World, which exploited it to the utmost; all the more readily since the mere reiteration of the falsehood tended to encourage criminals, and so to make it not a falsehood. For a time the cry was not without influence, even with decent people, especially if they belonged to the class of the timid rich; but it simply was not true, and so this bubble went down stream with the others. For six or eight months the cry continued, first louder, then lower; and then it died away. A commentary upon its accuracy was furnished toward the end of our administration; for in February, 1897, the judge who addressed the grand jury of the month was able to congratulate them upon the fact that there was at that time less crime in New York relatively to the population than ever before; and this held true for our two years’ service.

In reorganizing the force the board had to make, and did make, more promotions, more appointments, and more dismissals than had ever before been made in the same length of time. We were so hampered by the law that we were not able to dismiss many of the men who should have been removed, but we did turn out two hundred men; more than four times as many as ever had been turned out in a similar period before. All of them were dismissed after formal trial, and after having been given full opportunity to be heard in their own defense. We appointed about seventeen hundred men all told, —again more than four times as many as ever before, — for we were allowed a large increase of the police force by law. We made one hundred and thirty promotions; more than had been made in the six preceding years.

All this work was done in strictest accord with what we have grown to speak of as the principles of civil service reform. In making removals we paid heed merely to the man’s efficiency and past record, refusing to consider outside pressure; under the old régime no policeman with sufficient influence behind him was ever discharged, no matter what his offense. In making promotions we took into account not only the man’s general record, his faithfulness, industry, and vigilance, but also his personal prowess as shown in any special feat of daring, whether in the arresting of criminals or in the saving of life; for the police service is military in character, and we wished to encourage the military virtues. In making appointments we found that it was practical to employ a system of rigid competitive examinations, which, as finally perfected, combined a very severe physical examination with a mental examination such as could be passed by any man who had attended one of our public schools. Of course there was also a rigid investigation of character. Theorists have often sneered at civil service reform as “impracticable;” and I am very far from asserting that written competitive examinations are always applicable, or that they may not sometimes be merely stop-gaps, used only because they are better than the methods of appointing through political indorsement; but most certainly the system worked admirably in the police department. We got the best body of recruits for patrolmen that had ever been obtained in the history of the force, and we did just as well in our examinations for matrons and police surgeons. The uplifting of the force was very noticeable, both physically and mentally. The best men we got were those who had served for three years or so in the army or navy. Next to these came the railroad men. One noticeable feature of the work was that we greatly raised the proportion of native-born, until of the last hundred appointed ninety-four per cent were Americans by birth. Not once in a hundred times did we know the politics of the appointee, and we paid as little heed to this as to his religion.

Another of our important tasks was seeing that the elections were conducted honestly. Under the old Tammany rule the cheating was gross and flagrant, and the police were often deliberately used to facilitate fraudulent practices at the polls. This came about in part from the very low character of the men put in as election officers. By instituting a written examination of the latter, and supplementing this by a careful inquiry into their character, in which we invited any decent outsiders to assist, we very distinctly raised their calibre. To show how necessary our examinations were, I may mention that before each election held under us we were obliged to reject, for moral or mental shortcomings, over a thousand of the men whom the regular party organizations, exercising their legal rights, proposed as election officers. We then merely had to make the police thoroughly understand that their sole duty was to guarantee an honest election, and that they would be punished with the utmost rigor if they interfered with honest citizens on the one hand, or failed to prevent fraud and violence on the other. The result was that the elections of 1895 and 1896 were by far the most honest and orderly ever held in New York city.

There were a number of other ways in which we sought to reform the police force, less important, and yet very important. We paid particular heed to putting a premium on specially meritorious conduct, by awarding certificates of honorable mention, and medals, where we were unable to promote. We introduced a system of pistol practice by which for the first time the policemen were brought to a reasonable standard of efficiency in handling their revolvers. The Bertillon system for the identification of criminals was adopted. A bicycle squad was organized with remarkable results, this squad speedily becoming a kind of corps d’élite, whose individual members distinguished themselves not only by their devotion to duty, but by repeated exhibitions of remarkable daring and skill. One important bit of reform was abolishing the tramp lodging-houses, which had originally been started in the police stations, in a spirit of unwise philanthropy. These tramp lodging-houses, not being properly supervised, were mere nurseries for pauperism and crime, tramps and loafers of every shade thronging to the city every winter to enjoy their benefits. We abolished them, a municipal lodging-house being substituted. Here all homeless wanderers were received, forced to bathe, given nightclothes before going to bed, and made to work next morning; and in addition they were so closely supervised that habitual tramps and vagrants were speedily detected and apprehended.

There was a striking increase in the honesty of the force, and there was a like increase in its efficiency. It is not too much to say that when we took office the great majority of the citizens of New York were firmly convinced that no police force could be both honest and efficient. They felt it to be part of the necessary order of things that a policeman should be corrupt, and they were convinced that the most efficient way of waging war upon certain forms of crime—notably crimes against person and property—was by enlisting the service of other criminals, and of purveyors of vice generally, giving them immunity in return for their aid; the ordinary purveyor of vice was allowed to ply his or her trade unmolested, partly in consideration of paying blackmail to the police, partly in consideration of giving information about any criminal who belonged to the unprotected classes. We at once broke up this whole business of blackmail and protection, and made war upon all criminals alike, instead of getting the assistance of half in warring on the other half. Nevertheless, so great was the improvement in the spirit of the force, that, although deprived of their former vicious allies, they actually did better work than ever before against those criminals who threatened life and property. Relatively to the population, fewer crimes of violence occurred during our administration of the board than in any previous year of the city’s history in recent times; and the total number of arrests of criminals increased, while the number of cases in which no arrest followed the commission of crime decreased. The detective bureau nearly doubled the number of arrests made, compared with the year before we took office; obtaining, moreover, 365 convictions of felons and 215 convictions for misdemeanors, as against 269 and 105 respectively for the previous year. At the same time every attempt at riot or disorder was summarily checked, and all gangs of violent criminals were brought into immediate subjection; while the immense mass meetings and political parades were handled with such care that not a single case of clubbing of any innocent citizen was reported.

The result of our labors was of value to the city, for we gave the citizens better protection than they had ever before received, and at the same time cut out the corruption which was eating away civic morality. We showed conclusively that it was possible to combine both honesty and efficiency in handling the police. We were attacked with the most bitter animosity by every sensational newspaper and every politician of the baser sort, not because of our shortcomings, but because of what we did that was good. We enforced the laws as they were on the statute books, we broke up blackmail, we kept down the spirit of disorder and repressed rascality, and we administered the force with an eye single to the welfare of the city. In doing this we encountered, as we had expected, the venomous opposition of all men whose interest it was that corruption should continue, or who were of such dull morality that they were not willing to see honesty triumph at the cost of strife.

Our experience with the police department taught one or two lessons which are applicable to the whole question of municipal reform. Very many men put their faith in some special device, some special bit of legislation or some official scheme for getting good government. In reality good government can come only through good administration, and good administration only as a consequence of a sustained not spasmodic and earnest effort by good citizens to secure honesty, courage, and common sense among civic administrators. If they demand the impossible, they will fail; and, on the other hand, if they do not demand a good deal, they will get nothing. But though they should demand much in the way of legislation, they should make their special effort for good administration. We could have done very much more for the police department if we had had a good law; hut we actually accomplished a great deal although we worked under a law very much worse than that under which Tammany did such fearful evil. A bad law may seriously hamper the best administrator, and even nullify most of his efforts; hut a good law is of no value whatever unless well administered. In other words, all that a good scheme of government can do is to give a chance to get the good government itself, and if the various schemes stand anywhere near on an equality, the differences between them become as naught compared with the difference between good and bad administration.

  1. My predecessor in the presidency of the police board. The italics are my own.