Story of Theodore Roosevelt - J. W. McSpadden

As Police Commissioner

The New York Police Commission consisted of four members, who had oversight of all the police of that great city, in the year 1895, when Theodore Roosevelt was invited by the reform Mayor Strong to serve as its president.

Roosevelt accepted, and entered upon his duties with so much vigor and enthusiasm that he speedily became, in effect, the whole Board —just as he had overshadowed the other members of the Civil Service Commission in Washington.

The New York police force, while containing many fine members, was also honeycombed with "graft." From the highest offices down, preferment went by "pull." It was openly charged that a police captain had to pay $10,000 or more to the man "higher up" before he could gain his appointment. Lieutenants and sergeants paid their tribute in turn to the captains; and the roundsmen collected from saloon-keepers and others who desired special protection.

Roosevelt was thoroughly familiar with this state of affairs, and once in office began house-cleaning with all the quietness of "a wooden-legged man having a fit on a tin roof." He had not been in power a week before he was attracting more attention than the Mayor himself.

One of the first things that he set himself to correct was the system of graft and bribe-taking. Naturally he aroused intense opposition from many sources. The men "higher up" dared not fight in the open, but lost no opportunity to undermine his authority. The gamblers, saloon-keepers, and others who were accustomed to pay for protection also became alarmed. The majority of the patrolmen, however, soon saw that the new move would be of advantage to them. They would no longer have to pay for the chance of promotion.

Among some of the roundsmen, however, he became a source of terror. They were the fellows who loafed on their job, or wandered off their beat. Roosevelt began to check up on such fellows, by the simple expedient of himself wandering around from precinct to precinct at unheard-of hours, like old Haroun-al-Raschid.

One morning about two-thirty, a policeman sat passing the time away chatting with another officer, when a man muffled up in an overcoat came striding quickly around the corner.

"Officer Smith," he said to one of the men, "don't you belong on Post 21?"

"Yes—but—" stammered the astonished man, starting after his questioner.

"Never mind now," the other cut him short. "Go back to your post. Tell me all about it down at headquarters, to-morrow morning."

On another night he surprised a roundsman and two patrolmen having a sociable glass in the backroom of a saloon. He waited until they came out, then hailed them.

"Whose beat is this?" he demanded.

"What business is it of yours?" replied the roundsman insolently.

"All three of you report in the morning at headquarters. We will find out then whose beat it is!" And the man in the big coat and slouch hat walked rapidly away.

"It's Roosevelt!" gasped the man, with an oath.

Such tales as this got into the daily press and were repeated all over town. The force "stiffened up." They stayed on the job, as no man ever felt safe with such a restless fellow as their present Commissioner around. A cartoon in one of the papers entitled, "The Patrolmen's Nightmare," showed only the familiar eyeglasses and gleaming teeth shining through the darkness.

Another great fight into which he plunged was the question of the Sunday closing of saloons. Now there was a law on the books stating clearly that all such places should be closed, but it had become a dead-letter—at least among the privileged ones. The more prosperous barkeeper who paid his fee to a friendly police official, or to Tammany Hall, was allowed to keep open shop; while the poorer man around the corner who did not "come across" was promptly raided.

Roosevelt promptly set himself against this double abuse. If the law meant anything at all, it meant what it said; otherwise it ought to be repealed. It also meant the same thing to all classes, rich and poor. Accordingly, he sent his fiat forth that on and after such a date all saloons should be closed on Sunday.

The public read this edict with amazement and amusement. Some of the newspapers ridiculed him; others applauded; but none thought that it could be enforced. They pointed out that New York was too big a city to be subject to the laws of a one-horse town; that there was too large a foreign element; that the "interests" (another name for the grafters) would not permit this; that it interfered with "personal liberty"; and that the police force itself either could not or would not enforce the edict.

In fact, there were columns written about it all over the country. One would have thought that the very Constitution itself was threatened. But after the third Sunday was passed, the saloons, big and little—with pulls and without—were closed.

"It was as dry as Sahara!" one newspaper remarked.

The Germans, deprived of their Sunday beer, announced their intention of holding a parade of protest, and invited him, ironically, to review it. What was their astonishment. when some twenty thousand marched by in line, to find him in the reviewing stand bowing and smiling!

He was again the chief mourner in his own funeral procession!

Another reform on which he presently embarked, and which caused an even more vigorous howl, was in regard to tenement houses. For years the poorer people on the East Side of New York had been at the mercy of grasping landlords. Houses were crowded in so closely that the air shafts were little better than chimneys. Many rooms had no outside windows. Living conditions were unspeakable.

Roosevelt's friend, Jacob A. Riis, had long fought for better conditions, and on a former occasion had taken him into the East Side, to see for himself how the "other half" lived.

"I'll help you tackle this thing, Riis," he said, "when I have the chance—and we'll hit it hard."

The chance now came, for Roosevelt was not only Police Commissioner but also a member of the Health Board. Aided by Riis and other members of the Board, he got busy. Tenements which were built illegally—that is, without complying with sanitary requirements—were torn down. Playgrounds were opened. The old Tombs prison, which was dirty and overcrowded, was razed and a new one built on modern lines. The police lodging-houses, which had become hotbeds of vagrancy and crime, were shut up.

These things are easy to enumerate, but the doing of them was a slow and painful operation. Landlords rushed into court to obtain injunctions. Ward politicians assailed him. The yellow journals had their fling. Even respectable citizens who were not fully informed joined the chorus of protest. Roosevelt was denounced as a reformer and visionary.

In a letter to his sister, he writes:

"Every man's hand is against me; every politician and every editor; and I live in a welter of small intrigue. . . . I rather think that in one way or another I shall be put out of office before many months go by. But as I don't see what else I could have done, I take things with much philosophy and will abide the event unmoved. I have made my blows felt at any rate!"