Theodore Roosevelt revived his political fortunes in the 1890s by setting out to change the culture of policing in New York City. As a member of the police department’s board of commissioners, Roosevelt made it clear that there would be no more beatings, no more rewards, no more cover-up of bad behavior. His reforms would sound familiar to progressives today.
But, as John Oller notes in “Rogues’ Gallery: The Birth of Modern Policing and Organized Crime in Gilded Age New York,” Roosevelt also brought back the baton, the beat cop’s weapon of choice, which had been banned from years earlier. . âI don’t want a policeman to draw his club unless he needs it,â Roosevelt said. But if it were to become necessary, he added, “I want him to have the most efficient club there is.” So much for the abolition of the police. Speak softly and, well, you know the rest.
With Eric Adams, a former police officer, set to win New York City mayor in November after months of anti-police unrest and, no coincidence, a spike in homicides and shootings in city-wide, Mr. Oller could not have picked a better time for the release of his book.
As the author shows, the scientific thought behind recent innovations such as CompStat, which provides a computerized summary of crimes in the city, dates back to NYPD leaders over a century ago, particularly Thomas Byrnes, who ran the department’s detectives office. . “He kept statistics on the number of arrests, convictions and years of convictions of criminals apprehended by the office,” writes Mr. Oller. “And he made sure everyone knew when the stats were improving.”
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Byrnes dominates the first half of âRogues’ Galleryâ, and for good reason. He even provided the title of Mr. Oller’s book. Determined to make New York detectives as good as the legendary Scotland Yard detectives, Byrnes has kept records of pickpockets, petty thieves and ordinary mugs. When they crossed paths with law enforcement, he had them transported to police headquarters on Mulberry Street for their photos to be taken and displayed. Byrnes called this collection – wait for it – a rogue gallery.
Some New York reformers thought Byrnes himself should sit down for a portrait, not to mention that Harper’s Weekly said he had “done more to disrupt organized crime than any other man who has ever been a police officer.” Byrnes accepted the investment advice of financier Jay Gould after he dismantled a scam targeting the multimillionaire, and he seemed more concerned with street crime on Wall Street than in Bowery. Like many Irish-American cops and politicians of the day, he did not share the reform movement’s enthusiasm for shutting down gambling halls or illicit gambling parlors that opened on Sunday.
Today you might call it victimless crimes, but the ruling Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite did not see it that way. Mr Oller vividly tells the often-told story of Reverend Charles Parkhurst’s moral crusade against vice – including prostitution, which certainly victimized women – and the NYPD’s tolerance of its purveyors. This crusade led to a state investigation, which in turn led to the appointment of Roosevelt as police commissioner, which Mr Oller said put TR on the road to the White House.
The temptation to seek links to more recent police and crime controversies is inevitable, and Mr. Oller, whose previous books include biographies of War of Independence hero Francis Marion and actress Jean Arthur, invites comparisons. One of the heroes of âRogues’ Galleryâ, Captain Max Schmittberger, denounced police corruption. The author notes that Schmittberger, like Frank Serpico a century later, was acclaimed in the press but despised within the department.
As for Byrnes, he had no qualms about using brutal tactics, including aggressive questioning, if they led to safer streets and fewer casualties. The brutality of some of the cops in Mr. Oller’s book will certainly sound familiar to readers. The author recounts the near-fatal beating of journalist Augustine Costello, who wrote a dazzling NYPD story in the 1880s. But some cops thought the profile wasn’t bright enough. Costello was likely beaten to death, according to Mr. Oller, under the direction of a police inspector named “Clubber” Williams. Costello chose not to press charges, believing that no jury would convict the cops.
Then there was Joe Petrosino, an ingenious Italian-American detective hailed as an âItalian Sherlock Holmesâ who faced the first incarnations of the Mafia in New York. Gangsters killed him when his investigations took him to Italy in 1909, but Mr. Oller leaves us with the feeling that for every thug in Gilded Age New York – with or without a badge – there was an officer like Joe Petrosino.
Mr. Oller also examines some of the most sensational crimes of the time. While the details are fascinating, they are primarily useful in debunking the myth-making that went into Herbert Asbury’s oft-cited tome, “The Gangs of New York” (1927). A work of history, “The Gangs of New York” is a colorful film.
Ultimately, âRogues’ Galleryâ provides useful context for today’s ongoing conversation about the importance and limits of policing, and even what constitutes a crime. Reformers, including Roosevelt, viewed the saloonkeepers who opened their doors on Sundays as criminals, although the elites had access to Sunday drinks in their private clubs. Meanwhile, the cops sympathized with the saloonkeepers and were happy to look away, for a price. Hypocrisy has fostered corruption. Another significant lesson for today.
Mr. Golway is editor-in-chief at Politico and author of âSo Others Might Live,â a history of the New York Fire Department.
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