The History of The Municipal Police in New York City

Until the passage of the new Charter in 1870, the Police Department was independent of the control of the city officials, and consequently independent of local political influences. There was a “Metropolitan Police District,” embracing the cities of New York and Brooklyn, and the counties of New York, Kings, Richmond and Westchester, and a part of Queen’s county, in all a circuit of about thirty miles. The control of this district was committed to a commission of five citizens, who were subject to the supervision of the Legislature of the State. The Mayors of New York and Brooklyn were ex-officio members of this board.

The Charter of 1870 changed all this. It broke up the Metropolitan District, and placed the police of New York and Brooklyn under the control of their respective municipal governments. To the credit of the force be it said, the police of New York were less under the influence of the Ring than any other portion of the municipality, and improved rather than depreciated in efficiency.

As at present constituted, the force is under the control and supervision of four Commissioners appointed by the Mayor. The force consists of a Superintendent, four Inspectors, thirty-two Captains, one hundred and twenty-eight Sergeants, sixty-four Roundsmen and 2085 Patrolmen, Detectives, Doorkeepers, etc.

The present Superintendent of Police is Mr. James J. Kelso. He is the Commander-in-chief of the force, and it is through him that all orders are issued. His subordinates are responsible to him for the proper discharge of their duties, and he in his turn to the Commissioners. He was promoted to his present position on the death of Superintendent Jourdan, and has rendered himself popular with men of all parties by his conscientious discharge of his important duties. Mr. Kelso is eminently fitted for his position. His long service in the force, and great experience as a detective officer, have thoroughly familiarized him with the criminals with whom he has to deal, and the crimes against which he has to contend. He has maintained the discipline of the force at a high point, and has been rigorous in dealing with the offenders against the law. His sudden and sweeping descents upon the gambling hells, and other disreputable places of the city, have stricken terror to the frequenters thereof. They are constantly alarmed, for they know not at what moment they may be captured by Kelso in one of his characteristic raids.

In person Mr. Kelso is a fine-looking, and rather handsome man. He shows well at the head of the force. It is said that he was overwhelmed with mortification last July, when the Mayor compelled him to forbid the “Orange Parade,” and thus make a cowardly surrender to the mob. When Governor Hoffman revoked Mayor Hall’s order, at the demand of the indignant citizens, Kelso was perhaps the happiest man in New York. He had a chance to vindicate his own manhood and the honor of the force, and he and his men did nobly on that memorable day.

The city is divided into two Inspection Districts, each of which is in charge of two Inspectors. Each Inspector is held responsible for the general good conduct and order of his District. It is expected that he will visit portions of it at uncertain hours of the night, in order that the Patrolmen may be made more vigilant by their ignorance of the hour of his appearance on their “beats.” The Inspectors keep a constant watch over the rank and file of the force. They examine the Police Stations, and everything connected with them, at pleasure, and receive and investigate complaints made by citizens against members of the force. The creation of this useful grade is due to John A. Kennedy, the first Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police.

The Inspection Districts are sub-divided into thirty-two precincts, in each of which there is a Police Station. Each Station is in charge of a Captain, who is held to a strict accountability for the preservation of the peace and good order of his precinct. He has authority to post the men under his command in such parts of his precinct, and to assign them to such duties as he deems expedient, under the supervision of the Superintendent. He is required to divide his force into two equal parts, called the First and Second Platoons. Each Platoon consists of two Sections. Each of the four Sections is in charge of a Sergeant.

In the illness or absence of the Captain, the Station and Precinct are commanded by one of the Sergeants, who is named for that purpose by the Superintendent. The special duties of the Sergeants are to patrol their precincts, and see that the Roundsmen and Patrolmen are at their posts and performing their duties properly. They are severally responsible for the condition of their Sections. One of the Sergeants is required to remain at the Station House at all times.

Two Roundsmen are selected by the Commissioners from the Patrolmen of each precinct, and one of them is assigned to each platoon. They have the immediate supervision of the Patrolmen, and are required to exercise a vigilant watch over them at all times.

The Patrolmen are the privates of the force. They are assigned certain “beats” or districts to watch. Many of these beats are too large for the care of one man, and more is expected of the Patrolman than he is capable of performing. He is required to exercise the utmost vigilance to prevent the occurrence of any crime within his beat, and to render the commission of it difficult, at the least. The occurrence of a crime on the streets is always regarded as presumptive evidence of negligence on his part, and he is obliged to show that he was strictly attending to his duties at the time. He is required to watch vigilantly every person passing him while on duty, to examine frequently the doors, lower windows, and gates of the houses on his beat, and warn the occupants if any are open or unlocked; to have a general knowledge of the persons residing in his beat; to report to his commanding officer “all persons known or suspected of being policy dealers, gamblers, receivers of stolen property, thieves, burglars, or offenders of any kind;” to watch all disorderly houses or houses of ill-fame, and observe “and report to his commanding officer all persons by whom they are frequented;” to do certain other things for the preservation of the public peace; and to arrest for certain offences, all of which are laid down in the volume of Regulations, of which each member of the force is obliged to have a copy. Patrolmen are not allowed to converse with each other, except to ask or impart information, upon meeting at the confines of their posts; “and they must not engage in conversation with any person on any part of their post, except in regard to matters concerning the immediate discharge of their duties.”

The uniform of the force is a frock coat and pants of dark blue navy cloth, and a glazed cap. In the summer the dress is a sack and pants of dark blue navy flannel. The officers are distinguished by appropriate badges. Each member of the force is provided with a shield of a peculiar pattern, on which is his number. This is his badge of office, and he is obliged to show it when required. The men are armed with batons or short clubs of hard wood, and revolvers. The latter they are forbidden to use except in grave emergencies.

The general misdemeanors of which the police are bound to take notice, are: Attempts to pick a pocket, especially where the thief is a known pickpocket; cruel usage of animals in public places; interfering with the telegraph wires; selling or carrying a slingshot; aiding in any way in a prize fight, dog fight, or cock fight; destroying fences, trees, or lamps, or defacing property; aiding in theatrical entertainments on Sunday; disorderly conduct; participating in or inciting to riots; assaults; drunkenness on the streets; gambling; discharging fire-arms on the streets; and other stated offences. The officer must be careful to arrest the true offender, and not to interfere with any innocent person, and is forbidden to use violence unless the resistance of his prisoner is such as to render violence absolutely necessary, and even then he is held responsible for the particular degree of force exerted. If he is himself unable to make the arrest, or if he has good reason to fear an attempt at a rescue of the prisoner, it is his duty to call upon the bystanders for assistance; and any person who refuses him when so called on, is guilty of a misdemeanor, for which he may be arrested and punished.

Promotions are made in the force as follows: Inspectors are chosen from the Captains, Captains from Sergeants, Sergeants from Roundsmen, and Roundsmen from the most efficient Patrolmen.

The duties of a policeman are hard, and the salaries are moderate in every grade. The hours for duty of the Patrolmen are divided in the following manner: from six to eight o’clock in the morning; from eight o’clock in the morning to one in the afternoon; from one in the afternoon to six; from six to twelve midnight; from twelve midnight to six in the morning. These “tours” of duty are so distributed that no one man shall be called on duty at the same hour on two successive days. One-third of the entire force, about 700 in all, is on duty in the daytime, and two-thirds, about 1400 men, at night. Sickness and casualties bring down this estimate somewhat, but the men are such fine physical specimens that sick leaves are now comparatively rare.

Besides the Patrolmen there are several divisions of the force. Forty men, called the Court Squad, are on duty at the various Courts of Justice. Four have charge of the House of Detention for Witnesses, No. 203 Mulberry street. The Sanitary Squad consists of a captain, four sergeants, and fifty-seven patrolmen. Some of these are on duty at the ferries and steamboat landings. Others are detailed to examine the steam boilers in use in the city. Others execute the orders of the Board of Health. Another detachment, nine in number, look after truant children. Others are detailed for duty at banks and other places.


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