Chapter 10 - American Boy's Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward Stratemeyer

Appointed Police Commissioner of New York City—Corruptness of the Department—Strenuous Efforts to make Matters Better—A "Dry" Sunday—Enforcing the Tenement House Law and Other Measures

During the time that Theodore Roosevelt was a Civil Service Commissioner there were several important political changes made in New York City.

In the past there had been a great deal of what is familiarly called "machine politics," and matters had been going from bad to worse. But now there was an upward turn by the election of William S. Strong to the office of mayor. Mr. Strong was a man of high character, and was elected by a vote that combined the best elements of all the political parties.

It was at a time when New York City was in urgent need of reform. Those in power were doing but little to stop the corruption that was stalking abroad upon every hand. Bribes were given and taken in nearly all departments, clerks were being paid large salaries for doing practically nothing, and contracts were put out, not to those who could do the best work, but to those who would pay the political tricksters the most money for them.

The record of the police department was perhaps the blackest of the lot. It was to this department that the citizens looked for protection from crime, yet it was known that many in the department winked at all sorts of vice, providing they were properly paid for so doing. Saloons and worse resorts were kept open in defiance of the law, and wickedness flaunted itself in the face of the public in a manner that was truly shocking. Occasionally a private citizen would try to do something to mend matters, but his complaint was generally "pigeon-holed," and that would be the end of the matter. The rottenness, as it was well called, extended from the highest places in the department to the lowest, so that it was said not even a policeman could secure his appointment without paying several hundred dollars for it, and this he was, of course, expected to get back by blackmailing those who lived or did business on his beat. And get it back the policeman would, even if he had to make an Italian fruit dealer pay him a dollar a month for having a stand on the sidewalk, where the walk was supposed to be free from obstruction.

When William Strong came into office, the first thing he did was to cast his eyes about him for reliable men who might aid him in purifying the city. He already knew of Theodore Roosevelt's work as an assemblyman and a Civil Service Commissioner.

"Mr. Roosevelt is just the man to take the office of Police Commissioner and put the department on an honorable basis," said the newly elected mayor, and he lost no time in tendering the office to Mr. Roosevelt. The tender was accepted, and Theodore Roosevelt was sworn into his new position on May 24, 1895.

The appointment of Mr. Roosevelt to the office of Police Commissioner was a great shock to nearly the entire police department. He was known for his sterling honesty, and it was felt that he would not condone crime in any shape or form.

"There will be a grand shaking up," said more than one. "Just you wait till he gets to the bottom of things. He'll turn the light on in a way that will make more than one officer tremble in his boots."

On the Board with Mr. Roosevelt were Andrew D. Parker, Avery D. Andrews, and Frederick D. Grant, the latter the son of former President Grant. Theodore Roosevelt was chosen president, and the Board lost no time in getting to work.

"The new Board found the department in a demoralized condition," says Mr. Roosevelt, in his report on the matter. "A recent grand jury had investigated the records of many officers, and many indictments had been found; 268 vacancies existed in the department, and 26 officers, including one inspector and five captains, were under suspension on account of indictment for crime." This was truly a sad state of affairs, and a horrible example to the other large cities of our Union.

The Commissioners went to work with a will, and Theodore Roosevelt was the leading spirit in every move made. Every branch of the police department was given an overhauling, and those who would not do their duty were promptly dismissed, while minor offences were met with heavy fines. By an act of the legislature the force of men was increased to eight hundred, to keep pace with the growth of the metropolis. The men who were particularly faithful in the discharge of their duties were rewarded by honorable mention, engrossed certificates, medals of honor, and by promotions. More than this, they were given to understand that if they did their duty faithfully they need not fear trouble from those over them, no matter what changes were made. No officer was allowed to accept blackmail money from those lower in the service; and above all, no politics were to interfere with the fair and square running of the whole department.

It was a gigantic task, and it cannot be said that it was totally successful, for the opposition in some quarters was strong. More than once Mr. Roosevelt was threatened with violence, but, as when an assemblyman, he paid but scant attention to these mutterings.

His habits of personally investigating matters still clung to him, and it is well remembered how he went around at odd hours of the day and night, and on Sundays, seeing if the policemen were really doing their duty. There had been a boast that all policemen were at their posts at night. Mr. Roosevelt went out once and found just two out of an even dozen where they should be. Then began that "shaking up" that has resulted in better police service in New York to this day.

The effect of the new vigor in the police department was felt in many other ways. There was a tenement-house law regarding buildings which were unfit for human habitations. New York City was crowded with such buildings, but nobody had ordered them torn down, because either nobody wanted to bother, or the owners paid blackmail money to keep them standing for the rent they could get out of them.

"Those tenements must come down," said Theodore Roosevelt.

"If you order them down, the owners will fight you to the bitter end," said another officer of the department.

"I don't care if they do. The houses are a menace to life and health. They are filthy, and if a fire ever started in them, some would prove regular traps. They have got to go." And shortly after that about a hundred were seized, and the most destroyed.

The enforcement of the Sunday liquor law was another thing that occasioned great surprise during Mr. Roosevelt's term as Police Commissioner. In the past, saloons had been almost as wide open on Sundays as on week days. On account of the cosmopolitan character of the population it was thought that to close up the saloons on Sundays would be impossible. But the police force was given strict orders, and on one Sunday in June, 1895, New York City had the first "dry" Sunday that it could remember in many years.

This "dry" Sunday provoked a new storm of opposition, especially from many of foreign birth, who were used to getting liquor as easily on that day as on any other. More threats were made against the vigorous commissioner, and on two occasions dynamite bombs were placed in his desk, evidently with the hope that they would explode and blow him to pieces. But the bombs were found in time, and no damage was done, and Theodore Roosevelt paid scant attention to them.

After that he was attacked in a new way. Some of the politicians laid traps for him whereby they hoped to bring discredit to his management of the department. The fight grew very hot and very bitter, and he was accused of doing many things, "just for the looks of them," rather than to benefit the public at large. But he kept on his way, and at last the opposition were silenced to such an extent that they merely growled behind his back.

For many years a large number of shiftless and often lawless men, and women too, were attracted to the metropolis because of the "Tramps' Lodging Houses" located there. These resorts were continually filled by vagrants who would not work and who were a constant menace to society at large.

"We must get rid of those lodging houses," said Mr. Roosevelt. "They simply breed crime. No respectable man or woman, no matter how poor, will enter them."

"But we'll have to have some sort of shelter for the poor people," said others.

"To be sure—for those who are deserving. The others should be driven off and discouraged," answered Mr. Roosevelt. And one by one the tramps' lodging places were abolished. In their place the Board of Charities opened a Municipal Lodging House, where those who were deserving were received, were made to bathe, and given proper shelter and nourishment.

A story is told that, during the excitement attending the closing of saloons on Sunday, a friend came to Mr. Roosevelt and told about hearing some saloon-keepers plotting to harm him.

"What can they do?" demanded the Police Commissioner.

"I am afraid they can do a good deal," was the answer. "Each of those men has a barkeeper who has been in jail for various crimes. They may attack you some dark night and kill you."

"Perhaps I won't give them the chance," answered the man who had been on many a dangerous hunt in the wild West. "If they can shoot, so can I."

"But they may sneak up behind you and knock you out," insisted the visitor.

"Well, if they do that, I shall have died doing my duty," was the calm answer made by the future hero of the Rough Riders.