The following article appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of 'THE CHIEF OF POLICE' !!

The Birth of the NYPD

By Bernard Whalen and David Doorey


            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 fireworks and hoopla welcoming the new year. At the stroke of midnight, Manhattan and the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Richmond had officially consolidated to become the Greater City of New York, a metropolis whose sum was to be 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 the Republicans enjoyed strength in the outlying areas. It was the hope of the Republican leader, Thomas Platt, to wrest the power and prestige of governing Manhattan from the Democrats and deposit into the pockets of the Grand Old Party. But the Republicans did not count on the tenacity of Tammany Hall. The Democrats, like a giant octopus, 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.

            That same day 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 Charter. 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 work days. Of the ninety-six hour work week, sixty-four hours were either spent on patrol or reserve at the precinct, and thirty-two hours were considered unsupervised home time. Every ninety-six hours, patrolmen received a sixteen hour swing.

            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 Bureau. In the weeks preceding the new year, the smaller departments added numbers to their complement and promoted others in an effort to increase their ranks and status in the merged force. When it was later discovered that the actual number of police officers 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 of 3,400,000 people.

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 bipartisan 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. Although the term of office 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 Richard 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 Mayor Van Wyck to appoint Tammany favorite, William S. Devery. But Devery was a mere police captain, which made him technically ineligible for the position. Maneuvering him into position took 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, Devery was quietly elevated to Deputy Chief of Police, bypassing the rank of Inspector entirely.

Among Chief 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 officers and men stationed there." Plans were made to refurbish and repair station houses throughout the old city.

In addition, he created new precincts in the outer boroughs, realigned others, and renumbered the existing precincts since many in Brooklyn shared the same number designation as those in Manhattan. McCullagh also questioned the effectiveness of having all of the department's 271 detectives working out of the Central Office at Police Headquarters, 300 Mulberry Street. But since part of their function was to funnel graft through Headquarters to the local politicians, the mayor was predictably slow to act on his recommendation.

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 and scabbards to hold a locust or redwood nightstick. Their new shields were of similar size and shape to the currrent badges, but the identifying numbers were much smaller. All men were supposed to be armed with .32 caliber colt revolvers, but the cost of replacement was such an important consideration that many men carried their old firearms until they retired. Each officer was also issued a pamphlet explaining the rules and procedures of the unified force which they were required to carry with them at all times while on patrol.

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 him. The two Republican police commissioners, however, stood firm and refused to vote in favor of his forced retirement. Their stance resulted in a temporary stalemate. Then Mayor Van Wyck exercised his executive privilege and terminated their employment as 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 retired McCullagh on a $3,000 annual pension and appointed William Devery as 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 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 investigative duties as detectives (mainly to collect graft) sought monetary compensation at the higher rate of pay given to permanently appointed detectives. When the officers petitioned the Police Board for a raise, the commissioner's responded that it was within the department's prerogative to detail them to the Detective Bureau; however, it was not obligated to pay them at the higher salary. All the grievants were returned to patrol. The President of the Police Board admitted that the action brought by the patrolmen to recognize them as detectives had something to do with their reassignment.

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. At the time, the Election Bureau came under the jurisdiction of the NYPD. The department had the 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, registered Democrats. After the votes were tabulated, Devery declared the election to be the, "fairest ever held in New York City."

A committee reviewing New York City's government proposed a series of charter reforms that Governor Theodore Roosevelt approved prior to leaving office to become Vice-President. The most sweeping of these reforms called for the abolishment of the Police Board and the Chief of Police, to be replaced by a single commissioner. In February, 1901, Mayor Van Wyck appointed Board of Health President, Colonel Michael C. Murphy the first police commissioner. Colonel Murphy set the precedent for placing the department in the hands of former military men but he was not a strong leader. In addition, his health was so poor that he could not eat solid food. All of his meals were specially prepared by an aid and fed to him through a silver tube inserted in his stomach.

As a result of the legislation, Devery's position was also eliminated and he became temporarily unemployed. Boss Croker was not of a mind to turn over the entire police department to a novice, so he arranged for Murphy to name Devery as his First Deputy Commissioner. After the announcement, Colonel Murphy immediately ceded all important police decisions to Devery. He explained that 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 Revision committee had acted improperly when it abolished the position of Chief of Police. It didn't help that the First Deputy Commissionership paid $2,000 less per year than did his previous 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 become second in charge of the department.

As First Deputy, Devery oversaw the trial room and meted out punishment in a most haphazard fashion. On one occasion, a patrolman appeared before him sporting a deep scar 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 hittin' 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.

The new mayor Seth Low had campaigned on the promise that his first order of business if elected would be to remover Devery from office, permanently. On New Year's Day, 1902, Colonel Murphy's successor, Colonel John Partridge, met Devery at Police Headquarters and informed him that his twenty-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 for mayor himself a few years later.

Despite the turmoil of its early years, the NYPD had taken its first steps toward becoming a viable city-wide police force. It had weathered both the 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 salaries, long hours and uneven discipline would erode any efforts to improve the department. Under those conditions, patrolmen were often more than willing to compromise their oaths as well as their ethics for personal gain.

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