THE BIRTH OF THE NYPD
New Year's Day, 1898, the weather forecast predicted light snow in the morning, far from unusual for that time of year, but a significant change had taken place overnight amid the
hoopla welcoming the new year. At the stroke of midnight, Manhattan and the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Richmond (Staten Island) had officially consolidated to become the Greater City of New York, a metropolis
whose sum was greater than its parts.
While the impetus for consolidation was rooted in logic to lower taxes and reduce the duplication of public services provided by a number of smaller municipal governments
operating independently in the same geographic area, the State Republican party had its own motives. Manhattan had long been controlled by the Tammany Hall, Democratic machine, while Republicans enjoyed strength in
the outlying areas. It was the hope of state Republican leader, Thomas Platt, to wrest the power and prestige of governing Manhattan from the Democrats and deposit it directly into the pockets of the Grand Old
But the Republicans did not count on the tenacity of Tammany Hall. The Democrats, led by party boss Richard Croker reached their long tentacles into the homes and minds of the less sophisticated folk of the outer boroughs and added them to their own. This political victory effectively eliminated the Republican voice in the affairs of the new city and set a precedent for the future.
The same January 1st saw the birth of the New York Police Department as the eighteen separate police departments in the area merged into a single force of 6,396 members, a number fixed by the terms of the
City Chart. Included in this number were twenty-nine women designated as matrons.
The top annual salary for patrolmen in the consolidated department was $1,400 for a schedule that called for a minimum of
292, sixteen hour workdays. Of the ninety-six hour work week, sixty-four hours were spent on patrol or reserve at the precinct, and thirty-two were considered unsupervised home time that could be canceled without
notice. Every ninety-six hours, patrolmen received a sixteen hour swing which was considered their day off.
Although the bulk of the force's members came from the New York Police, some of the other
jurisdictions represented were the Brooklyn Police Department, Long Island City Police Department, the Brooklyn Bridge Police, the Park Police (Central Park) and the Telegraph Bureau, a forerunner of today's
Communications Division. In the weeks preceding the new year, the smaller departments added members to their compliment and promoted others in an effort to increase their ranks and standing in the merged force. When
it was later discovered that the actual number of police officers in the new department exceeded the number allotted by the Charter, these extra men were fired. Then the Police Board promptly declared the size
of the force was inadequate for the city's 3,400,000 residents.
The framers of the Charter were careful to include language in the document to insure one political party could not seize control of the
consolidated police force for its own purposes.
As a result, Greater new York's first elected mayor, Robert Van Wyck, a man whose campaign slogan was, "To hell with reform," was required by law to appoint a bi-partisan Police Board to oversee the department. The board consisted of four commissioners, two Democrats and two Republicans. One of the appointees, Democrat Bernard York was designated President of the Board. Although the term for each commissioner was four years, the Charter provisions still allowed the mayor to remove any or all of the board members at his discretion (or that of his Tammany Hall sponsor, Boss Croker).
There was controversy almost immediately because the Charter also severely restricted who the first Chief of Police of the merged force could be. The new department's highest ranking uniformed member had to
be one of four men, either the Chief of Police, New York or his deputy, or the Chief of Police Brooklyn, or his deputy.
None of the candidates suited Boss Croker. He wanted his benefactor, Mayor Van Wyck to appoint Tammany favorite William S. Devery. But Devery was a mere police captain, which made him technically ineligble for the designation. Maneuvering him into position would take a little time.
In the interim, the board named John McCullagh Chief of Police, the equivalent of today's Chief of Department. Although McCullagh was a respected police leader and the former head of the New York
Police, he was also a Republican. His future, therefore, was extremely tenuous. Meanwhile, Captain Devery was quietly elevated to Deputy Chief of Police bypassing the rank of Inspector completely.
McCullagh's first duties was a complete assessment of the new department. His inspection of department facilities led him to declare, "Several are entirely unfit for use and are dangerous to the health of the
men stationed there." Plans were made to refurbish and repair station houses throughout the city.
In addition, McCullagh created new precincts in the outer boroughs, realigned others, and renumbers the
existing precincts because many in Brooklyn shared the same numerical designation as those in Manhattan. McCullagh also questioned the effectiveness of having all 271 of the department's detectives working out of
the Central Office at Police Headquarters, 300 Mulberry Street. But since part of their function was to funnel graft through Police Headquarters to the local politicians, the mayor was predictably slow to act on his
recommendation to station detectives throughout the city.
Chief McCullagh turned his attention to less contentious issues such as standardizing the police uniform. All patrolmen were required to wear long
blue frocks with two rows of nine brass buttons, dark blue pants, hard grey police helmets and leather belts with scabbards to hold their locust or redwood nightsticks. Their new shields were of similar shape and
size to the current badges, but their identifying numbers were much smaller.
All men were supposed to be armed with .32 caliber Colt revolvers, but the cost of replacing the firearms and ammunition with their own money was such an expense that most men simply carried whatever weapons they came into the job with until they retired. Each officer was also issued a pamphlet explaining the rules and procedures of the untied force which they were required to carry with them at all times while on duty.
As dedicated as he was, Chief McCullagh's political affiliation doomed him from the start. Despite his obvious commitment to the department, by early May, rumors that he was to be removed, proved true.
Orders were sent to the board by Boss Croker who was conveniently away in England, to replace the veteran commander.
The two Republican police commissioners, however, stood firm and refused to vote in favor of McCullagh's forced retirement. Their defiant stance resulted in a temporary stalemate. Then Mayor Van Wyck exercised his executive privilege and terminated their employment police commissioners. In their place he named a more pliable Republican to the board, Jacob Hess, and to guarantee no more deadlocks, he left the fourth commissionership vacant until such time as a new police chief was named. The reformed board quickly voted to retire McCullagh on a $3,000 annual pension and appointed William Devery the new Chief of Police. Tammany Hall had gotten its man.
Many civic minded New Yorkers were understandably concerned. Devery's career had survived a series of scandals that would have landed most others in jail.
As a captain taking over a new command, he once told his men, "They tell me there's a lot of grafting going on in this precinct. They tell me that you fellows are the fiercest ever on graft. Now that's going to stop! If there's any grafting to be done, I'll do it. Leave it to me."
Lincoln Steffens, a popular journalist of that time wrote of Devery, "As a Chief of Police, he is a disgrace, but as a character, he is a work of art."
During his stewardship, patrolmen he
personally assigned to temporary duty as detectives (more likely to collect graft, than to carry out investigations) sought monetary compensation at the higher rate of pay given to permanently appointed detectives.
When these officers petitioned the Police Board for a raise, the commissioners repsonded that it was within the department's prerogative to detail them to the Detective Bureau, however, the department was not
obligated to pay them at the higher salary.
To stave off future complaints, the board returned all the grievants back to uniform patrol. The president of the Police Board later admitted that the action brought by the patrolmen to recognize them as detectives had something to do with their reassignment. This issue was finally resolved in 1990 with the passage of the 18 month law which requires the NYPD to promote police officers to detectives once they have completed eighteen months in an investigative assignment. In the ninety years between the board's decision on the matter and the implementation of the new law, police officers languished for years performing investigative duties without compensation as plainclothesmen and white shield detectives.
Devery ran into trouble in November, 1900, with the State Superintendent of Elections, the same John McCullagh he had replaced as Chief of Police. The staunch Republican was investigating election fraud in
new York City and threatened to empanel a Grand Jury to review Devery's oversight of the election process because the Election Bureau came under the jurisdiction of the NYPD. At that time, the department has sole
authority to select polling places, create election districts, appoint inspectors, and print ballots.
The department also verified floaters, residents of city hotels and lodging houses, who for a small fee voted for Tammany candidates often using the names of dead, but nonetheless, still registered Democrats. After the votes were tabulated that year, Devery declared the election to be the "fairest ever held in New York City."
Despite such boasts, a committee reviewing New York City government proposed a series of charter reforms that Governor Theodore Roosevelt (former president of the Police Board, New York Police) approved
prior to leaving office to become Vice-President. The most sweeping of those reforms called for the abolishment of the Police Board and the Chief of Police, to be replaced by a single police commissioner. In
February, 1901, mayor van Wyck appointed Board of Health President, Michael C. Murphy the first police commissioner. The naming of Colonel set the precedent that followed for a number of years placing the department
in the hands of former military men. But Murphy was not a strong leader. In addition, his health was frail that he could not eat solid food.
All of his meals were specially prepared by an aide and fed to him through a silver tube inserted into his stomach.
As a result of the legislation, Devery's position was also eliminated and he became
unemployed, albeit, temporarily.
Boss Croker was not of a mind to turn over the entire police department to a novice, so he arranged for Murphy to name a First Deputy Commissioner to assist him. That man was William Devery. After the announcement, Colonel Murphy immediately ceded all important police decisions to Devery, explaining it was his desire to have men with "as much police experience as may be possible" in the police business with him.
Devery, for the record, accepted the appointment under protest because he felt the Charter Commission had acted improperly when it eliminated the position of Chief of Police. It didn't help that the First
Deputy Commissionership paid $2000 less per year than did his former job. Those reformers and State Republican leaders who had worked so hard to rid the NYPD of William Devery found little solace in the fact
that he had accepted a thirty-three percent pay cut to remain with the department.
As First Deputy, Devery oversaw the trial and meted out punishment in a most haphazard
fashion. On one occasion, a
patrolman appeared before him sporting a deep gash over his temple , the result of a fierce struggle with a suspect who managed to escape even though the officer fired a warning shot over his head. Devery listened
impatiently to the story, then growled, "Twenty days for not hitting' him!"
Devery and mayor Van Wyck survived until the November election when the Tammany slate was voted out of office. Van Wyck,
who could not run due to term limits in effect at that time, ran for City Supreme Court justice. He placed last in a field of six candidates and never sought public office again.
The new mayor, reformer Seth
Low had campaigned on the promise that his first order of business if elected would be to remove Devery from office, permanently. On New Year's Day, 1902, Police Commissioner Murphy's successor, Colonel John
Partridge met Devery at Police Headquarters and informed him that his thirty-three year association with the department had ended. In retirement, Devery continued to make himself available for comment and
opinion about his former department and even made a bid himself for mayor a few years later. He did not win.
Despite the turmoil of its early years, the NYPD had taken its first steps toward becoming a
viable citywide police force.
It had weathered both storms and the whims of unsavory politicians. By placing the department under a single police commissioner, the public now had one person to be held accountable for the actions of all police officers. But the system had also demonstrated that unless the person placed in charge was willing to provide leadership, the low salary, long hours and uneven discipline would erode any efforts to improve the department. Under those conditions, patrolmen were often more willing to compromise their oaths as well as their ethics for personal gain.
Authors' Note: Bernard Whalen is a lieutenant and nineteen year of the NYPD. He and his father, Jon Whalen, whose novel Justifiable Homicide has been published by Ballantine Books under the name BJ
Whalen, are currently writing a history of the NYPD, beginning with its formation in 1898 and looking at the political factors that have influenced the department during its existence and how that affected the
members of the department and its overall performance in the eyes of the public. A number of other writers are involved in the project. Mr. David Doorey is one of those writers and researchers. This article is based
on excerpts from book's first chapter.
Copyright © 2000 By Bernard Whalen &David Doorey
Lieutenant Bernard Whalen, NYPD, is the author of a novel entitled: Justifiable Homicide, Ballentine Books, New York 2000. That book can be ordered via www.Amazon.com It will be the book of the month on NY COP ONLINE MAGAZINE www.nycop.com in the September issue.
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