Chronicles of America 

Haroun Al Roosevelt

In 1895, at the age of thirty-six, Roosevelt was asked by Mayor Strong of New York City, who had just been elected on an anti-Tammany ticket, to become a member of his Administration. Mayor Strong wanted him for Street Cleaning Commissioner. Roosevelt definitely refused that office, on the ground that he had no special fitness for it, but accepted readily the Mayor's subsequent proposal that he should become President of the Police Commission, knowing that there was a job that he could do.

There was plenty of work to be done in the Police Department. The conditions under which it must be done were dishearteningly unfavorable. In the first place, the whole scheme of things was wrong. The Police Department was governed by one of those bi-partisan commissions which well-meaning theorists are wont sometimes to set up when they think that the important thing in government is to have things arranged so that nobody can do anything harmful. The result often is that nobody can do anything at all. There were four Commissioners, two supposed to belong to one party and two to the other. There was also a Chief of Police, appointed by the Commission, who could not be removed without a trial subject to review by the courts. The scheme put a premium on intriguing and obstruction. It was far inferior to the present plan of a single Commissioner with full power, subject only to the Mayor who appoints him.

But there is an interesting lesson to be learned from a comparison between the New York Police Department as it is today and as it was twenty-five years ago. Then the scheme of organization was thoroughly bad--and the department was at its high-water mark of honest and effective activity. Now the scheme of organization is excellent--but the less said about the way it works the better. The answer to the riddle is this: today the New York police force is headed by Tammany; the name of the particular Tammany man who is Commissioner does not matter. In those days the head was Roosevelt.

There were many good men on the force then as now. What Roosevelt said of the men of his time is as true today: "There are no better men anywhere than the men of the New York police force; and when they go bad it is because the system is wrong, and because they are not given the chance to do the good work they can do and would rather do." The first fight that Roosevelt found on his hands was to keep politics and every kind of favoritism absolutely out of the force. During his six years as Civil Service Commissioner he had learned much about the way to get good men into the public service. He was now able to put his own theories into practice. His method was utterly simple and incontestably right. "As far as was humanly possible, the appointments and promotions were made without regard to any question except the fitness of the man and the needs of the service." That was all. "We paid," he said, "not the slightest attention to a man's politics or creed, or where he was born, so long as he was an American citizen." But it was not easy to convince either the politicians or the public that the Commission really meant what it said. In view of the long record of unblushing corruption in connection with every activity in the Police Department, and of the existence, which was a matter of common knowledge, of a regular tariff for appointments and promotions, it is little wonder that the news that every one on, or desiring to get on, the force would have a square deal was received with scepticism. But such was the fact. Roosevelt brought the whole situation out into the open, gave the widest possible publicity to what the Commission was doing, and went hotly after any intimation of corruption.

One secret of his success here as everywhere else was that he did things himself. He knew things of his own knowledge. One evening he went down to the Bowery to speak at a branch of the Young Men's Christian Association. There he met a young Jew, named Raphael, who had recently displayed unusual courage and physical prowess in rescuing women and children from a burning building. Roosevelt suggested that he try the examination for entrance to the force. Young Raphael did so, was successful, and became a policeman of the best type. He and his family, said Roosevelt, "have been close friends of mine ever since." Another comment which he added is delicious and illuminating: "To show our community of feeling and our grasp of the facts of life, I may mention that we were almost the only men in the Police Department who picked Fitzsimmons as a winner against Corbett." There is doubtless much in this little incident shocking to the susceptibilities of many who would consider themselves among the "best" people. But Roosevelt would care little for that. He was a real democrat; and to his great soul there was nothing either incongruous or undesirable in having--and in admitting that he had--close friends in an East Side Jewish family just over from Russia. He believed, too, in "the strenuous life," in boxing and in prize fighting when it was clean. He could meet a subordinate as man to man on the basis of such a personal matter as their respective judgment of two prize fighters, without relaxing in the slightest degree their official relations. He was a man of realities, who knew how to preserve the real distinctions of life without insisting on the artificial ones.

One of the best allies that Roosevelt had was Jacob A. Riis, that extraordinary man with the heart of a child, the courage of a lion, and the spirit of a crusader, who came from Denmark as an immigrant, tramped the streets of New York and the country roads without a place to lay his head, became one of the best police reporters New York ever knew, and grew to be a flaming force for righteousness in the city of his adoption. His book, "How the Other Half Lives", did more to clean up the worst slums of the city than any other single thing. When the book appeared, Roosevelt went to Mr. Riis's office, found him out, and left a card which said simply, "I have read your book. I have come down to help." When Roosevelt became Police Commissioner, Riis was in the Tribune Police Bureau in Mulberry Street, opposite Police Headquarters, already a well valued friend. Roosevelt took him for guide, and together they tramped about the dark spots of the city in the night hours when the underworld slips its mask and bares its arm to strike. Roosevelt had to know for himself. He considered that he had two duties as Police Commissioner: one to make the police force an honest and effective public servant; the other to use his position "to help in making the city a better place in which to live and work for those to whom the conditions of life and labor were hardest." These night wanderings of "Haroun al Roosevelt," as some one successfully ticketed him in allusion to the great Caliph's similar expeditions, were powerful aids to the tightening up of discipline and to the encouragement of good work by patrolmen and roundsmen. The unfaithful or the easy-going man on the beat, who allowed himself to be beguiled by the warmth and cheer of a saloon back-room, or to wander away from his duty for his own purposes, was likely to be confronted by the black slouch hat and the gleaming spectacles of a tough-set figure that he knew as the embodiment of relentless justice. But the faithful knew no less surely that he was their best friend and champion.

In the old days of "the system," not only appointment to the force and promotion, but recognition of exceptional achievement went by favor. The policeman who risked his life in the pursuit of duty and accomplished some big thing against great odds could not be sure of the reward to which he was entitled unless he had political pull. It was even the rule in the Department that the officer who spoiled his uniform in rescuing man, woman, or child from the waters of the river must get a new one at his own expense. "The system" knew neither justice nor fair play. It knew nothing but the cynical phrase of Richard Croker, Tammany Hall's famous boss, "my own pocket all the time." But Roosevelt changed all that. He had not been in Mulberry Street a month before that despicable rule about the uniform was blotted out. His whole term of office on the Police Board was marked by acts of recognition of bravery and faithful service. Many times he had to dig the facts out for himself or ran upon them by accident. There was no practice in the Department of recording the good work done by the men on the force so that whoever would might read.

Roosevelt enjoyed this part of his task heartily. He believed vigorously in courage, hardihood, and daring. What is more, he believed with his whole soul in men. It filled him with pure joy when he discovered a man of the true stalwart breed who held his own life as nothing when his duty was at stake.

During his two years' service, he and his fellow Commissioners singled out more than a hundred men for special mention because of some feat of heroism. Two cases which he describes in his "Autobiography" are typical of the rest. One was that of an old fellow, a veteran of the Civil War, who was a roundsman. Roosevelt noticed one day that he had saved a woman from drowning and called him before him to investigate the matter. The veteran officer was not a little nervous and agitated as he produced his record. He had grown gray in the service and had performed feat after feat of heroism; but his complete lack of political backing had kept him from further promotion. In twenty-two years on the force he had saved some twenty-five persons from drowning, to say nothing of rescuing several from burning buildings. Twice Congress had passed special acts to permit the Secretary of the Treasury to give him a medal for distinguished gallantry in saving life. He had received other medals from the Life Saving Society and from the Police Department itself. The one thing that he could not achieve was adequate promotion, although his record was spotless. When Roosevelt's attention was attracted to him, he received his promotion then and there. "It may be worth mentioning," says Roosevelt, "that he kept on saving life after he was given his sergeantcy."

The other case was that of a patrolman who seemed to have fallen into the habit of catching burglars. Roosevelt noticed that he caught two in successive weeks, the second time under unusual conditions. The policeman saw the burglar emerging from a house soon after midnight and gave chase. The fugitive ran toward Park Avenue. The New York Central Railroad runs under that avenue, and there is a succession of openings in the top of the tunnel. The burglar took a desperate chance by dropping through one of the openings, at the imminent risk of breaking his neck. "Now the burglar," says Roosevelt, "was running for his liberty, and it was the part of wisdom for him to imperil life and limb; but the policeman was merely doing his duty, and nobody could have blamed him for not taking the jump. However, he jumped; and in this particular case the hand of the Lord was heavy upon the unrighteous. The burglar had the breath knocked out of him, and the 'cop' didn't. When his victim could walk, the officer trotted him around to the station house." When Roosevelt had discovered that the patrolman's record showed him to be sober, trustworthy, and strictly attentive to duty, he secured his promotion at once.

So the Police Commission, during those two years, under the driving force of Roosevelt's example and spirit, went about the regeneration of the force whose former proud title of "The Finest" had been besmirched by those who should have been its champions and defenders. Politics, favoritism, and corruption were knocked out of the department with all the thoroughness that the absurd bipartisan scheme of administration would permit.

The most spectacular fight of all was against the illegal operations of the saloons. The excise law forbade the sale of liquor on Sunday. But the police, under orders from "higher up," enforced the law with discretion. The saloons which paid blackmail, or which enjoyed the protection of some powerful Tammany chieftain, sold liquor on Sunday with impunity. Only those whose owners were recalcitrant or without influence were compelled to obey the law.

Now a goodly proportion of the population of New York, as of any great city, objects strenuously to having its personal habits interfered with by the community. This is just as true now in the days of prohibition as it was then in the days of "Sunday closing." So when Roosevelt came into office with the simple, straightforward conviction that laws on the statute books were intended to be enforced and proceeded to close all the saloons on Sunday, the result was inevitable. The professional politicians foamed at the mouth. The yellow press shrieked and lied. The saloon-keepers and the sharers of their illicit profits wriggled and squirmed. But the saloons were closed. The law was enforced without fear or favor. The Sunday sale of liquor disappeared from the city, until a complaisant judge, ruling upon the provision of the law which permitted drink to be sold with a meal, decreed that one pretzel, even when accompanied by seventeen beers, made a "meal." No amount of honesty and fearlessness in the enforcement of the law could prevail against such judicial aid and comfort to the cause of nullification. The main purpose of Roosevelt's fight for Sunday closing, the stopping of blackmail, was, however, achieved. A standard of law enforcement was set which shows what can be done even with an unpopular law, and in New York City itself, if the will to deal honestly and without cowardice is there.

So the young man who was "ever a fighter" went on his way, fighting evil to the death wherever he found it, achieving results, making friends eagerly and enemies blithely, learning, broadening, growing. Already he had made a distinct impression upon his times.