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WHEN POLICE COMMISSIONER.
His Fight for the Honor of New York City-Brief Statement of the Facts-Unwise
Legislation -Bi-Partisan Police Failure-The Blackmail Business-Morning Calls on the Police
Dry Rot in Politics—A Brave Man's Great Good Work.
OLICE COMMISSIONERS Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick D. Grant,
and Andrew D. Parker were appointed May 6, 1895. Commissioner
Avery D. Andrews was appointed February 13, 1895. Theodore Roosevelt was elected President, and Mr. Andrews Treasurer. Grant was on the Committee on Rules and Discipline. February 27, 1897, President Roosevelt made a report, in which the story of the Board up to the close of the year 1896 was made, to the Hon. W. L. Strong, Mayor of the City of New York.
This report introduces a summary of important changes, and is substantially the history, by President Roosevelt, of his Police Commissioner's experience. The first sentence that slashes open the situation is this: “The new Board found the Department in a demoralized condition, comparable with nothing known in the history of the Department.” The cause of the agitation of the demoralization is given in the next paragraph:
“An extraordinary Grand Jury had recently been investigating the records of many officers, and many indictments had been found; 268 vacancies existed in the Department, and twenty-six officers, including one inspector and five captains, were under suspension on account of indictments for crime. Important legislative changes were pending, and a feeling of uncertainty and distrust pervaded the Department. This was even more strongly noticeable in the attitude of the public towards the Department."
The consequence was that the last eight months of 1895 were essentially a period of transition. The new Board, its President pleasantly says, accepted "new methods of administration," one of which was to enforce "strict discipline and absolute impartiality," and this revolutionary proceeding "speedily caused the retirement of many officers of various grades.” The new police law was of the bi-partisan sort, meant to insure against serious changes of any kind, and caused a delay of months. In the time from May 15th to July 15th, the vacancies increased to 355, including one chief, three inspectors, eleven capT. R.-6.
tains and eleven sergeants. The inwardness of the police force had, it is plain, been moved mightily. When the year 1895 closed, 206 patrolmen had been appointed, and fifty-eight additional on probation. The Legislature increased the force by 800. There had been a failure for several years to increase the force to correspond with the growth of the city. The appointments, for the year 1896, made a total of 1,336. This was necessary, but not the change of most importance. It was found, in the language of the President, “imperatively necessary, in order to re-establish discipline in the Department, to substitute dismissals for light penalties which had previously been given for grave breaches of discipline, such as drunkenness and insubordination; and the imposition of heavier penalties for all grades of offenses. In former times it was common to impose a fine of one-half day or one day for a negligent or willful failure to patrol, and fines of two or three days were common for disobedience of orders, or off post in liquor stores.” There were 169 dismissals in twenty months. In four years before this the dismissals were seventy-six.
Under Roosevelt the commendation of meritorious officers was a feature, -awarding honorable mention, engrossed certificates, medals of honor, and extra bars to medals previously awarded. The clog upon thorough work was the bi-partisan feature, which scattered authority, and with it, responsibility. President Roosevelt refers to the legislation as "unwise,” making this specification of unwisdom: "Not only have these two Legislatures refused to pass any bill which would give us the power to rid the Department of bad officers, and to administer it with proper vigor and efficiency, but they have actually, made the law very much worse than it formerly was, weakening our powers to do good work, and rendering it more difficult to check evil and to centre responsibility. If no other change is possible, then at least it would be well to repeal the present law and re-enact the old law, which was in force when the present Board took office, in May, 1895. The old law was far preferable to the present law."
The “enormous change for the better” was “due entirely to the Board," which Roosevelt declared "administered all the laws with an eye single to the interests of the service,” and, he added, “the welfare of the city;" and “the particular law under which the Department itself is administered is worse than was the law which it supplanted. When the present Board was appointed, the Force was still administered under the old law, but immediately afterward the so-called bi-partisan bill, as passed by the Legislature of 1895, became a law. The Legislature of 1895 at the same time refused to pass a reorganization bill, which would have given the Police Board the power to remove the corrupt and incapable officers who were on the force; and the Legislature of 1896 also refused to pass a similar bill. Indeed, the Legislature of 1895
actually passed a bill taking away the right of trial from the Commissioners, which would have rendered the powers of the Board for good almost null; but the members of the Board appeared before you [Mayor Strong] in a body to protest against the bill, and by your veto you killed it. Finally, the Legislature of 1896 refused to pass a bill asked for by the majority of the Board, and approved by you, to remedy the worst evils which had been created by the so-called bi-partisan act."
This report, it should be remembered, was addressed to Mayor Strong. President Roosevelt pointed out "the two worst features of the bi-partisan act” stating that, “in the first place, it divides responsibility; indeed, to a large extent centring the power in one place and the responsibilty in another; and, in the second place, it renders immeasurably greater the already sufficiently difficult task of getting efficient action out of a four-headed Commission, for a four-headed Commission is necessarily a clumsy executive instrument.”
The President says the Chief alone should have powers of details, with ultimate responsibilty of the Board. A single-headed Commission is recommended, and as the next best thing, a three-headed Commission. It is a curious fact that the best work done was under a misunderstanding of the law. Of this Roosevelt remarks: "The full disadvantages of the new law were not very manifest at first; because, for the first seven or eight months of its existence, the new Board had under it in the higher positions only acting officers, and it therefore continued to exercise virtually the powers the Board had formerly possessed. It was not until March, 1896, that it found that the power to promote to the rank of Roundsman, and to make temporary promotions of officers to act in a higher grade, were in the eye of the law, not promotion, but assignments or details. During these ten months of unchecked control, the Board accomplished an almost incredible amount of work for the reorganization of the Department.'
It was almost a truism, the President of the Commission, now the President of the United States, remarked, when his Board grappled with the police question in a demoralized city, that the excise law "could not be enforced in New York City.” The Board determined to make a trial of enforcement, and “The result was that, for the first time in its history, the Excise law was thoroughly and honestly administered in New York. The means employed by the Board were perfectly simple, and consisted merely in insisting that the wealthy liquor sellers and those who possessed great political influence should be treated precisely as their weaker brethren were treated. When we took office, there were hundreds of saloons that were closed on Sunday, while thousands more were open, only those being closed which did not pay blackmail, or whose owners, for some reason or other, were under the protection of the higher Police officers or of influential politicians who had power with
these officials. We enforced the law with rigid equity upon all alike. In consequence, we made all alike close. Yet, though we shut the saloons on Sunday, we actually made fewer arrests than had been made before. In the year previous to our term of office, over 10,000 persons were arrested for violation of the Sunday law. During the first twelve months of our administration but 5,700 were arrested. Yet, while making 4,300 fewer arrests, we enforced obedience to a law which never before had been obeyed, because for the first time we arrested everybody, without regard to their wealth or political backing, and allowed no arrests to be made for purposes of blackmail or political intimidation. The figures for the arrests show, by the way, that while the number of excise arrests fell off, the number of arrests for more important crimes increased; a proof that the Police, while warring upon vice, have also warred more efficiently than ever before against violent criminality. We pursued the same tactics with gambling houses and disorderly houses, and with much the same success, in spite of the scant help we received from a few of the executive and judicial officers of the Government, and of the obstacles thrown in our way by the Comptroller."
The "Tramp Lodging House” was abolished, because of such a nature that "only dire necessity could persuade a decent man or woman to take refuge in them; but they were entirely congenial to the worst class of tramp or of robust, semi-criminal outcast; and as winter came on, representatives of those types and of those kin to them flocked to the city, where they were thus provided with free lodging." These tramp places were closed one by one, and "the Board announced that everything possible should be done to force the shiftless or vicious to go to places where they could be dealt with properly, while the honest workingman or woman who was in temporary need would be directed to charitable resorts that were always open to them. That the change was made was due chiefly to the establishment by the Board of Charities of a Municipal Lodging House, where all homeless wanderers were received, were forced to bathe, were given night-clothes before going to bed, and were made to work next morning."
As to the blackmailing and protecting vice system, Commissioner Roosevelt said: “When the present Board took office, the Force was honeycombed with corruption. Every species of 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 information as to the criminals who belonged to the unprotected classes. The result was twofold. The Police officers possessed ill-gotten funds, out of which they could afford to pay for assistance in catching criminals, and they warred against one-half of the criminal class, with, as allies, the other and more insidiously hurtful half. We broke up this whole business of blackmail and protection. The fence and