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26 June, 2013
Theodore Roosevelt
Chapter VII: Police Commissioner
by Pearson, Edmund Lester


Experienced politicians always warn young men who wish to rise in politics, who wish to hold high office in the state or national government, to keep out of city politics. It is a graveyard for reputations, and it was that in 1895, when Roosevelt took charge of the New York Police, even more than to-day.

Between the unreasonable reformers, who expect perfection, arrived at in their own way; the sensible folk who demand an honest government; the lax and easy-going people who do not care how much rottenness there is about, so that it is kept partly covered up (and this is one of the largest classes) and the plain criminals who are out for graft and plunder, the city office-holder is torn in a dozen ways at once.

If he is dishonest or weak, he goes under immediately. If he is honest, but lacking in perfect courage, he is nearly useless. And if he is both honest and brave, but has not good brains, is not able to use his mind quickly and well, he is either helpless, or soon placed in a position where he seems to have been dishonorable. For, of course the first method which a crooked man uses to destroy his honest opponent, is to try to make him look crooked, too. Often during his life Roosevelt insisted upon the fact that a man in public life must not only be honest, but that he must have a back-bone and a good head into the bargain.

Nothing but a sense of public duty, nothing but a desire to help the cause of better government, could have made a man take the Police Commissionership in 1895. Mayor Strong, on a Reform ticket, had beaten Tammany Hall. He wanted an able and energetic man and so sent for Roosevelt. The condition of the Police Department sounds more like a chapter from a dime novel gone mad, than from any real state of things which could exist in a modern city. Yet it did exist.

The police were supposed to protect the city against crime. What they really did was to stop some of the crime--when the criminal had no "pull"--and to protect the rest of it. The criminal handed over a certain amount of his plunder to the police, and they let him go on with his crime. More than that, they saw that no one bothered him. There was a regular scale of prices for things varying all the way from serious crime down to small offenses. It cost more to be a highway robber, burglar, gun-man or murderer, for instance, than merely to keep a saloon open after the legal time for closing. A man had to pay more for running a big gambling-house, than simply for blocking the side-walk with rubbish and ash-cans.

Roosevelt found that most of the policemen were honest, or wished to be honest. But, surrounded as they were by grafters, it was almost impossible for a man to keep straight. If he began by accepting little bribes, he ended, as he rose in power, by taking big ones, and finally he was in partnership with the chief rascals. The hideous system organized by the powerful men in Tammany Hall spread outward and downward, and at last all over the city. Roosevelt did not stop all the crime, of course, nor leave the city spotless when he ended his two years service. But he did make it possible for one of his chief opponents, one of the severest of all critics, Mr. Godkin, a newspaper editor, to write him, at the end of his term of office:

"In New York you are doing the greatest work of which any American to-day is capable, and exhibiting to the young men of the country the spectacle of a very important office administered by a man of high character in the most efficient way amid a thousand difficulties. As a lesson in politics, I cannot think of anything more instructive." [Footnote: Thayer, "Theodore Roosevelt," p. 106.]

How did he do this? First, he tried to keep politics out of the police-force,--to appoint men because they would make good officers, not because they were Republicans or Democrats. Next, he tried to reward and promote policemen who had proved themselves brave,--who had saved people in burning houses or from drowning, or had arrested violent men at great danger to themselves. This is commonly done in the New York Police Department to-day: it was not so common before 1895. Roosevelt and his fellow commissioners found one old policeman who had saved twenty-five people from drowning and two or three from burning buildings. They gave him his first promotion. He began to have the Department pay for a policeman's uniform when it was torn in making an arrest or otherwise ruined in the performance of duty. Before, the policeman had had to pay for a new uniform himself. He had each policeman trained to use a pistol, so that if he had to fire it at a criminal, he would hit the criminal, and not somebody else. He did his best to stop the custom of selling beer and whiskey to children. Finally he stopped disrespect for law by having law enforced, whether people liked it or not.

Of course, this got him into hot water. One of our worst faults in America lies in passing a tremendous number of laws, and then letting them be broken. In many instances the worst troubles are with laws about strong drink. People in the State, outside of New York City, and some of those in the City, wished to have a law to close the saloons on Sunday. So they passed it. But so few people in the City really wished such a law, so many of them wished to drink on Sunday, that the saloons stayed open, and the saloon- keepers paid bribes to the police for "protection." The result was not temperance, but the opposite. Moreover it led to disrespect for the law, and corruption for the police. It was not Commissioner Roosevelt's business whether the law was a wise one or not, but it was his business to enforce it.

He enforced it, and had the saloons closed. As he said: "The howl that rose was deafening. The professional politicians raved. The yellow-press surpassed themselves in clamor and mendacity. A favorite assertion was that I was enforcing a 'blue law,' an obsolete law that had never before been enforced. As a matter of fact, I was enforcing honestly a law that had hitherto been enforced dishonestly." [Footnote: "Autobiography," p. 210.]

In the end, those who wished to drink on Sundays found a way to do it, and the law intended to regulate drinking habits failed, as such laws nearly always have done. A judge decided that as drink could be served with meals, a man need only eat one sandwich or a pretzel and he could then drink seventeen beers, or as many as he liked. But the result of Roosevelt's action had nearly stopped bribe-giving to the police. So there was something gained.

Roosevelt went about the city at night, sometimes alone, sometimes with his friend Jacob Riis, a reporter who knew about police work and the slum districts of the city. If he caught policemen off their beat, they were ordered to report at his office in the morning and explain. When his friends were dancing at fashionable balls, he was apt to be looking after the police outside.

From about this time, Roosevelt began to be known all over the United States. He had been heard of ever since he was in the Assembly, but only by those who follow politics closely. Now, New York newspapers, with their cartoons, began to make him celebrated everywhere. The fact that when he spoke emphatically, he showed his teeth for an instant, was enlarged upon in pictures and in newspaper articles, and it became connected with him henceforth.

We demand amusing newspapers; we like the fun in every subject brought out as no other nation does. And we get it. Our newspapers are by far the brightest and most readable in the world. But we have to pay for it, and we often pay by having the real truth concealed from us in a mass of comedy. Newspapers seize upon a man or woman who has something amusing in his life, manner, or speech, and play upon that peculiarity until at last the true character of the person is hidden.

This happened with Roosevelt. About the time of his Police Commissionership, the newspaper writers and artists began to invent a grotesque and amusing character called "Teddy," who was forever snapping his teeth, shouting "Bully!" or rushing at everybody, flourishing a big stick. This continued for years and was taken for truth by a great many people. To this day, this imaginary person is believed in by thousands. And in the meantime, the genuine man, a brave high-minded American, loving his country ardently, and serving her to the utmost of his great strength and ability, was engaged in his work, known by all who had personal contact with him to be stern indeed against evil-doers, but tender and gentle to the unfortunate, to women and children and to animals.

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