The Bowery and the notorious Five Points neighborhood.
From a population of about 33,000 in 1790, New York City had grown to a metropolis of nearly 400,000 by 1845. Desperately poor immigrants packed into a city that still extended no farther north than 14th Street. The old constable system, which had policed New York since the days of the Dutch, was simply overwhelmed by a new set of policing problems: growing slums, rising crime and frequent rioting. There were so many public disturbances in 1834 that it became known as "The Year of the Riots." The worst problems centered on the Bowery and the notorious Five Points neighborhood which contemporaries called "a rendezvous for thieves and prostitutes" and which was said to be the scene of a murder a night.
There was growing sentiment for a police force on the "London model," a paramilitary organization with uniforms and a chain of command, but the idea was resisted by those who feared that such a "standing army" would constitute a threat to the liberties of Americans. With Mayor Robert Morris laying the groundwork in the early 1840s and Mayor William Havemeyer securing passage of a police bill, a municipal police force was finally created in 1845 with an initial staffing of 900 men. George W. Matsell was named the first chief of police.
From its inception, the police department was a creature of politics and a rich source of patronage. Police officers served one- and two-year appointments and often at the pleasure of politicians. They also supervised elections, even though they had a vested interest in the outcomes. Controlling the police force was seen as a key to political power by both the Tammany Democrats and their Whig rivals. Matters came to a head with the election of Democrat Fernando Wood and a move by the Whigs, who controlled the state government, to wrest police power from the mayor. In 1857, the state legislature created the Metropolitan Police for the City of New York, the City of Brooklyn, and Westchester County, effectively abolishing New York's Municipal Police.
Metropolitan Police Officers, circa 1860.
Mayor Wood did not give in so easily, however, and the result was two rival police forces patrolling the same city. Some Municipal Police went over to the Metropolitans, but others stayed loyal to Wood. The conflict culminated in a donnybrook in front of City Hall as the Metropolitans attempted to arrest Wood, and the Municipals defended him. The state government eventually prevailed, and the Metropolitan Police patrolled New York until 1870, when police power was restored to the local level.
By the latter years of the 19th Century, New York had become one of the world's largest cities with a population of a million and a half people. In addition to policing a vast criminal underworld of street gangs, pickpockets, gamblers, prostitutes and even river pirates, the police department took on many other tasks of urban governance, including licensing steam boilers, inspecting tenement houses and cleaning streets, which they did from 1872 until a street cleaning department was formed in 1881. Police precincts also became the last resort of indigents who slept in dingy precinct cellars without toilets, bathing facilities or bedding. In 1885, more than 134,000 homeless people were the guests of the police in these "precinct hostelries."
With a total force of only about 2,500 men in 1882, the police used some roughhewn methods to keep order. They established a "frozen zone," encompassing a square mile of Wall Street's financial district, where any known criminal was arrested on sight. This was also an era of widespread, almost routine, police corruption. The selling of police captaincies was commonplace, and gamblers and pimps paid a regular tithe to police officials. The Rev. Dr. Charles Parkhurst thundered against police corruption from his pulpit, leading to the Lexow Committee investigation in 1894, the reform mayoralty of William Strong, and the reform police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt.
An iron-willed leader of unimpeachable honesty, Theodore Roosevelt brought a reforming zeal to the New York City Police Commission in 1895. Although some of his reforms were undermined by later Tammany regimes, Roosevelt set the standard for the modern NYPD. He and his fellow commissioners established a new set of disciplinary rules, reorganized the Detective Bureau and adopted the Bertillon system, a precursor of fingerprinting, that identified criminals by the measurements of their bone structures. Roosevelt created a bike squad to police New York's growing traffic problems, started a school of pistol practice, began regular inspections of firearms and instituted annual physical exams.
In his two years as president of the Police Commission, Roosevelt saw some 1,600 new recruits appointed not on the basis of political affiliation but solely for their physical and mental qualifications. He opened admission to the department to ethnic minorities and hired the first woman, Minnie Gertrude Kelly, to work in police headquarters. He established the first police meritorious service medals, promoting the idea of policing as an ethical and honorable profession. Prompted by Jacob Riis, who had written about the horrible conditions for indigents sleeping in precinct basements, Roosevelt shut down the police hostelries, and a Municipal Lodging House was established by the Board of Charities.
The Greater City of New York was a vast jurisdiction of three and a half million people by 1900 and of nearly seven million by 1930. The police department, which had grown to about 7,500 cops at the turn of the century, added another 10,000 over the next 30 years. This era brought the first large infusion of other ethnic groups, including Italian-Americans, GermanAmericans, Polish-Americans, AfricanAmericans and Jews, into what had been largely an Irish-American organization. It also brought the first police use of two technologies that would come to define modern policing: the automobile and the radio. In 1911, the department adopted the three platoon-system with three eight-hour tours working around the clock, as well as a stationary post system that was the forerunner of the modern police beat.
The biggest problem in the big city was traffic, a wild mix of panicked horses, newfangled automobiles and careening trolleys. With no traffic regulations in place until 1910, cops on foot at intersections controlled traffic with semaphore disk marked stop" and "go." The Mounted Unit reached its peak with 800 horses, most of which were assigned to traffic patrol. Large scale use of stoplights didn't begin until the 1930s, and just in time, since that decade also saw the opening of the George Washington and Triborough bridges, the Lincoln and Queens-Midtown tunnels, the West Side Highway and the FDR Drive.
New York City Police Department Emergency Services, circa 1926.
The passage of the Volstead Act in 1920 and the prohibition of alcohol for the next decade greatly increased the wealth and power of New York City's criminal underworld. Organized crime, or "the mob," controlled bootlegging, prostitution, and loan sharking, and moved into such legitimate businesses as the garment and trucking industries. A gang war between the Irish-based White Hand and the largely Italian Black Hand led to dozens of shootings and murders in the "Roaring 20s." Adding to the mayhem were the less organized but equally violent "robbery" gangs, including the Candy Kid Gang, the Cry Baby Gang, the Lone Wolf Gang, the Cake Eaters Gang, the Laughing Gang and the Aspirin Gang, which actually stole nearly $100,000 worth of aspirin tablets from the Bayer Company.
Although they cut a bloody swath, most of the robbery gangs were quickly apprehended by the NYPD and their members executed or imprisoned for long terms. The department's Gunman's Squad, 60 officers whose equipment included six heavily armored motorcycles, were given the mission of "driving criminals, gangsters and disorderly characters from the streets." Law and order came at a heavy price, however. There were 26 officers shot in 1926, eight of whom died from their wounds. In all. 57 New York City police officers were killed in line of duty in the 1920s, the largest number of police casualties in any decade.
The NYPD was probably strengthened by the Great Depression because the tough job market brought people into policing who might otherwise have sought work elsewhere. More than half the Police Academy class of 1941 were college graduates, for instance, and many leaders of the department in the 1950s and 1960s came from this group. In World War 11, the department helped prepare the city's civil defense, organizing some 240,000 air wardens, including 28,000 people to manually turn off street lights in the event of an air raid. By 1945, about 1,000 members of the department were serving with the military overseas. The NYPD raised $16 million for the war effort and is credited with the purchase of 80 fighter planes.
The postwar years marked the emergence of the modern NYPD, with its familiar two-tone radio cars responding to emergency calls. All patrol cars had two-way radios by 1950. That year also saw the establishment of the first minimum education requirements and a maximum retirement age. The next 30 years would bring increasing professionalism to policing and the department, including rising educational and physical standards, clearer accountability in the chain of command, police officers and commanders earning college and graduate degrees, and a willingness to study other police departments and organizations to improve management.
A Police Academy graduating class in the early 1960s reflects the increasing diversity of the NYPD.
The 1960s and 1970s were times of great change and even turmoil in New York City and its police department. Severe rioting in 1964 and again in 1968 tested the department's capacity to defuse and control explosive situations. Increasing inner city poverty, growing drug use and rising youth crime posed a longer-term challenge. Between 1965 and 1971, reported crime rates rose by 91 percent, and radio runs by the Police Department were up by two-thirds. The 911 system was in place by 1969, allowing a quicker response to emergency calls. Special homicide, robbery and burglary squads were established in the Detective Bureau to deal with the exploding crime problems. The Organized Crime Control Bureau was founded in 1971 to investigate narcotics crimes and eventually assumed the responsibility for public morals and auto crime.
The department was becoming a much more diverse organization in these years as growing numbers of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and women of all races chose police careers. In 1975, however, the city's fiscal crisis brought layoffs of police officers and civilians alike. By 1982, the department's uniformed strength had fallen to 23,900 from a peak of more than 30,000 seven years before. The rebuilding began in the 1980s together with the department's first extensive experiments with community policing. Today, the NYPD has regained its strength and embarked on reengineering and strategic policing initiatives designed for the 21st Century.
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