Faculty Advisor

Dr. David Schley


Police Service in America evolved out of the older system of the night watch. The duty of watch was taken by the regular citizen at the beginning. Since 1820s, police departments emerged in the northeastern urban centers and New York City adopted elements from London police service and founded Municipal Police in 1845. In 1857, Republican reformers in the state capital, Albany created a new Metropolitan Police force and abolished the Municipal police. Throughout the latter part of 19th century, NYPD had been notorious for serious corruption and was investigated by the Lexow Committee in 1894. In 1895, Theodore Roosevelt became the President of the NYPD Police Commission and adopted a series of reforms against corruption. The new commissioner fostered police professionalization in New York that shaped the perception of the modern police image and system.

As Wilbur Miller points out, Police are product of distinct historical circumstances and the problems of American police in the late 19th century was originated from its institutional structures and social context. Early NYPD reflected the general style of local government shared its style of participation and decentralization. With its real power residing at the neighborhood , the authority decentralized police department was mostly granted by the community instead of the institutions and law. This “democratic features” of the NYPD, as a result, gave a greater amount of discretionary authority to the policemen. The general public were more tolerant of the police misconduct as the police were regarded by as the people as well. During the second half of the 19th century, due to the growing number of the immigrants and the ineffectiveness of the city government, Boss machine also took advantage of the decentralized nature of police department to capitalize on ethic politics, in communities to control law enforcement. Under the boss system, NYPD collected bribes from saloons, brothels, and gambling houses in return for the salutary neglect of local police and protection from prosecution.

In 1895, the Republican appointed commissioner Theodore Roosevelt came to office, adopted a series of reforms in the police department. The new commissioner was deeply concerned about the corruption of the police. He strictly enforced the Sunday-closing law in order to demonstrate the honesty of the NYPD. Berman interprets TR’s reform from the administrative perspective. He highlights TR’s institution of the civil service system replacing political appointment and centralization to the NYPD, thereby decreasing precinct power. He called the reform “a legalistic style of law enforcement” which means TR set out to enforce the laws in a city where selective non-enforcement was a source of graft. Berman downplays the effectiveness of the moralistic reform. Instead he sees the reform as a progress in the administration that stamped out the breeding ground of corruption within the system.

Different than the administrative perspective above, I would like to look at TR’s reform in Wilbur Miller’s framework of police authority to explain of its effect on corruption of NYPD. In this paper, I will argue that TR’s reform was an intensive shifting process of New York Police authority from personal to impersonal.The reform made NYPD become an agent of the legal system, instead of from the local community’s informal expectations or the directives of the dominant political party and thereby reduced the influence of corruption. The paper is consisted of two parts. In the first part I will explain the relation between police authority and police corruption in New York. In the second part, I will analyze how did TR’s reforms change the traditional police authority in New York.


Department of History

Year of Award



2017 Honourable Mention

Document Type

Student Paper

Included in

History Commons