What Police Corruption?

History of Police Corruption

In Grace’s Pictures I write about police corruption in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. If you know history, you probably know Teddy Roosevelt headed the police commission from 1895-1897 and brought wide sweeping changes. Together with a photographer named Jacob Riis (who makes an appearance in my novel) they traipse through Lower Manhattan neighborhoods in the middle of night, waking up sleeping patrolmen and taking flash photographs of the horrid living conditions.

Roosevelt was familiar with Riis previous to taking the position on the commission, having read his book, How the Other Half Lives. Roosevelt was a reformer, but his primary interest was wider in politics, so he only served in this role for two years. Perhaps if he’d been there longer, more changes might have been made sooner. He did bring attention to the corruption and insisted the police department act more professionally. He required firearm training for the force, for one thing, authorizing the purchase of Colt revolvers for his men. Yes, believe it or not, before that not every policeman was armed, and those that were did not necessarily know how to shoot a gun.

Roosevelt Did Not Clean up the Police

Tammany Hall, the political force that influenced elections in the city, was strong, and with Roosevelt and Mayor Strong (who supposedly supported a bipartisan agenda) gone, the police department continued to be an “every man for himself” kind of operation. Not to say there weren’t good men, and their work wasn’t effective. Some steps were made in the right direction, but at the time of my story gangs still ruled the streets, and shopkeepers not only had to make them happy, but also the local patrolman who collected “protection” money.

One thing they seemed to excel at: parading. Here is a Thomas Edison film from 1899.


It’s a myth that Teddy Roosevelt cleaned up the New York Police Department, but with Jacob Riis’s help he certain cast light on the problems.

Below is a good summary from The History Channel. The part about Roosevelt’s role in the New York City Police lasts until about the 3:00 mark.

Our Ancestors Endured

This part of history is another facet in the story of our immigrant ancestors. How they managed to not only get through it, but to thrive enough to raise their families is nothing short of courageous.

Unfortunately police corruption still exists in places, but nothing in this country compares to that time in history. If you couldn’t trust the police, who could you trust? This is the question foremost in Grace McCaffery’s mind in Grace’s Pictures.

What part of this history, if anything, surprises you? Our history classes did not teach it all, I don’t think.

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