History, Real Life Crime

Corruption in High Places

The New York City police was officially formed in 1845. Before its inception, however, crime had been controlled by an informal justice system. As early as 1846, police officials were given permission to arrest anybody who looked like they were about to commit a felony, and this system of ‘preventing’ crimes continued into the start of the 20th century. By the 1870s, more than one thousand suspicious looking people were arrested annually and this number doubled within the next 20 years. Many of those arrested would be locked in cells and starved, as encouragement to confess to the crimes that they had been about to commit.

A corrupt system between those who were breaking the law, and those who were supposed to be upholding it was put into place. The 19th century police force was described as ‘a dark, mysterious layer of the life of a great city.’ Patrol officers were tolerant of petty crimes, and turned a blind eye, if they received regular payment known as ‘percentage copper.’ This system of blackmail was well-known throughout the police department and included pickpockets, prostitution and gambling. More serious offences would be solved by judges, police and criminals coming to an agreement among themselves.

Upper levels of the police force were also a part of the corruption, with an 1875 investigation revealing that detectives managed the financial relationship between police captains and the criminals within their precinct. Many of them became wealthy due to their close monitoring of this activity. Journalists publicly accused the authorities of using illegal methods in the name of the law, branding them as ‘crooked crooks.’

The police force argued that there were more criminals than honest people in the slums, and if they were all arrested there would be nowhere to keep them. Thieves were given the opportunity to return stolen items for rewards, no questions asked. This benefited victims, whose main concern was that their property was given back, as well as those who committed the act in the first place as they were probably doing so to be able to eat. This fueled the symbiotic relationship between the detectives and the criminals of the New York underworld, and the citizens appreciated the opportunity to continue surviving under the harsh conditions of the streets.

When Thomas J. Byrnes became superintendent of police in 1892, he put additional measures in place to keep criminals under control. As he had moved up through the ranks Byrnes knew that it would be useless to try and eliminate crime (both on the force and in the streets), so he selectively addressed high profile criminal activities that could be controlled. His successes included opening detective offices in Wall Street and near the New York Stock Exchange, two high target areas, so that the police would never be far from these places. He also established a ‘dead line’ where thieves would be allowed to continue their plunder on the east and west sides of Manhattan, outside the stipulated area.

Byrnes was also an influential and outspoken crime writer, publishing Professional Criminals in America in 1866, which was a compilation of underworld figures at the time along with their images. He also wrote other revealing stories during his time on the force. Herbert Asbury also detailed the organized crime of the period in his 1928 book, The Gangs of New York.

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