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Tammany’s echoes


It’s hard to believe today, but there was a time when politicians and police officers shared a very cozy relationship. This close bond was of particular concern to political reformers in the early 1900s who simply wanted an honest criminal justice system. 

Back then, Tammany Hall, a powerful Democratic political club ruled the roost in New York City. “The Tiger,” as the organization was often referred to, controlled all aspects of everyday life for residents throughout the five boroughs, mainly from behind the scenes. 

For over 100 years, reformers had little success reigning in Tammany Hall. Despite their best efforts, Tammany-nominated candidates routinely won City Hall. In return, newly elected mayors allowed party leaders to dole out important patronage jobs in the new administrations. Qualifications for the positions were seldom given much thought. The primary objective was to keep the Tammany coffers full. To these politicians, the police department was considered more important as a funding mechanism than as a law enforcement organization. 

Corrupt politicians got rich working hand in hand with the criminal underworld. They passed on small amounts of their proceeds to police officers to either look the other way or go out of their way to enforce the law. For example, the owner of a gambling hall bribed a politician to keep his place from being raided or paid money to have a rival establishment shuttered. These arrangements periodically came to light and resulted in embarrassing scandals for the police department, two of which led directly to the resignations of two popular mayors, Jimmy Walker and William O’Dwyer.  

It took reformers Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his longtime police commissioner, Lewis Valentine, who let his patrolmen know right from the onset that he would be quicker to punish a thief in uniform than an ordinary thief, three terms in office to tame the Tiger. Tammany Hall had a brief resurgence in the 1950s before finally succumbing. But even without the backing of a political machine, the Democrats somehow managed to stay in power and keep the one-party system for all intents and purposes, alive and well to this day. 

Ironically, once the police were no longer available to do their bidding, these same politicians started to turn on them until it snowballed into the current situation police officers on the street face today.  

The politicians began by enacting laws that hampered the ability of police to protect law-abiding citizens under the guise of police reform which is now referred to as “Reimagining Policing.” 

Police officers acting under direct orders from superiors are now left to fend for themselves when things go south. 

Suddenly, baseball bats and machetes are not considered dangerous enough against which to use deadly physical force. Legislation to take away qualified immunity from police officers for conduct directly related to the performance of their sworn duty was passed without regard as to how it would impact public safety. 

Meanwhile, the Civilian Complaint Review Board has been granted powers way beyond their original charter. CCRB treats minor violations by police officers as serious offenses, but for criminals, new laws forbid bail even for repeat offenders. Not that it seems to matter since district attorneys refuse to prosecute dangerous felons anyway.  

It begs the question, who is their tiger? Who is pulling the strings behind the scenes to get these politicians to dance like puppets? How are they getting rich beyond their means? What is their political end game? If they are seeking total anarchy in this city, it’s obvious they are on their way to achieving it unless the public revolts, and it better be sooner rather than later. 

The thin blue line has never been thinner. Morale has never been lower. Thankfully, the politicians who love to have their pictures taken at police funerals are being told to stay away by the rank and file of the NYPD.      

Bernard Whalen is a former NYPD lieutenant and co-author of “The NYPD’s First Fifty Years” and “Case Files of the NYPD.”

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  • UnionMode

    Hahaha what an ominous conclusion. It's interesting, being born into a liberal family and gradually getting lefter, it was always **** the police. Your right though, police reform, and the legislation that came out of the summer of George Floyd actions, really did not amount to ****. If you think critically, it is undeniable that white police officers with guns will carry out racialized violence, but no one on the left who is pushing for reforms really wants to listen to y'alls perspective either. That makes no sense for passing sound policy— the same people who have technical degrees that say they are credited to study the working class ignore the fact that police officers are workers. All industries are flawed, yours is also just violent so the stakes are a little higher. I am not sure what it felt like to be a police officer 50 years ago, but I doubt anyone was grappling with that tension, that is probably why the blue line is so thin. Officers have to confront the fact that the majority does not **** with them at all in a way that is new. I would argue that if you want to enforce a state sanctioned idea of "Justice" your going to have to grapple with the trauma that comes with it, its an unavoidable fact of policing. So this gives you an opportunity to either work through that tension and trauma, or hide in it. Although a little scary, your conclusion makes it seem like there is great solidarity in the police community and I think working with that is going to be how this country figures it all out. Thanks for a good article.

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