Saturday, August 6, 2011

Preventing Crime and Mock Auctions

In which we wish the MPDC a happy anniversary

MPDC Crest,
based on the 1861 badge
When Abraham Lincoln stepped off the train into the nation's capital the city was different. First of all, stately Union Station wouldn't be completed until 1908. Lincoln arrived in the middle of the night at the old Baltimore & Ohio rail station in the same location. Lincoln was there early to prepare for his inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol without a complete dome, facing a quarter-built Washington Monument at the end of the rather scrubby National Mall (the land that is now the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial wouldn't be reclaimed from the Potomac River until the end of the 19th Century). After he was sworn in he would travel back to the the Executive Mansion ("White House" was just a popular nickname that wouldn't become official until 1911), avoiding B Street, next to the stinking, festering canal, not much used except as a garbage dump (today both are incorporated into Constitution Avenue).

A great deal of the Washington we know today has its roots in the transformation unleashed by the American Civil War, and on August 6, 1861, on the last day of session before August recess, Congress authorized a little transformation that helped make DC what it is today -- it authorized the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, the first District-wide, non-Congressional authority.

The District of Columbia (though not named so yet) site had been selected in 1790 by an act of the first Congress that stated the national capital should be "located as hereafter directed on the river Potomack, at some place between the mouths of the Eastern-Branch [Anacostia] and Connogochegue be, and the same is hereby accepted for the permanent seat of the government of the United States", with President George Washington picking the precise spot. The spot was further south than most Northerners wanted it, but it was a compromise that Southerners demanded in exchange for allowing the Federal government to assume the Revolutionary War debt of the Northern states.

Washington wanted his property closer to the District, and so it took another year of arm-wrangling to change the law and allow the National Capital to go past the Eastern Branch of the Potomac so it would include the city of Alexandria (and Congress slapped a rider prohibiting Federal buildings south of the Potomac to make sure ol' George didn't make a fortune on real estate). The original Territory of Columbia ("district" comes from the wording of Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution) contained three cities, Alexandria, Georgetown, and the new Washington (sometimes " the Federal City") running roughly between Jenkins' (Capitol) Hill and the Potomac.

By 1801, the land outside the three cities had been organized into the Counties of Washington (north of the Potomac) and Alexandria (south of the Potomac), and it was at this time that the residents of the District officially lost the right to elect a member of Congress. In 1846, the land south of the Potomac was retroceded (given back) to Virginia at the request of the state government (so Virginia's biggest slave port could counterbalance the new free labor mountain county representatives in the state legislature), leaving the District of Columbia with three separate jurisdictions, Washington County, Washington City, and Georgetown. Each had their own administration, their own courts, and their own law enforcement.

Congress paid the salaries of Washington City constables beginning in 1804, to provide security for the Federal government, but Georgetown and Washington County were on their own. When Congress wanted to expand the service in Washington City to provide night patrols in 1842, they allowed constables a percentage of fines they received, but refused to provide a salary until 1851. But in 1861, the massive number of soldiers, support staff, laborers, business men, and profiteers (including in illegal trades) that descended on Washington overwhelmed the local forces.

When Major General George McClellan came to town had appointed Colonel Andrew Porter provost-marshal to deal with the crime caused by the soldiers. Porter had lead a brigade of the Second Division on Henry Hill (and on August 6 was in the midst of a spat with Ambrose Burnside about what had happened that day when Colonel David Hunter was wounded) and within a week had accomplished wonders in clearing out the bars and brothels of soldiers. But there were plenty of other clientele, and the District experienced a crime spree in summer 1861.

Lincoln had been urging Congress to pass a bill organizing a larger police force based on the famed New York City Police Department that had transitioned from a collection of drunk constables into the nation's most professional force in 1844 (and was itself an imitation of London's Metropolitan Police Service -- known better to Americans by the name of their headquarters, Scotland Yard). In the Senate, the bill was sponsored by the uniquely named Senator John C. Ten Eyck (R-NJ) and disappeared into the Committee on the District under James W. Grimes (R-IA). Neither the Senate nor the House spent any time debating the bill, so it must not have been controversial in either body. But if that is true, it also wasn't much of a priority. When the Senate finally concurred to the House version it was without a recorded vote, during a session where it seemed everything had to have a recorded vote.

The new law, signed by Lincoln, created the "Metropolitan Police Department" a name evocative of a cross between London's force and New York's. But it also had echos of the military's Department of Washington, with which it would share jurisdictional boundaries, as well as the aspirations that the swampy backwater that was the nation's capital could ever be considered a "metropolis" other than the strictest interpretation of the Greek for "mother city" from which there were smaller clusters of communities founded (the word had been in its current usage of "big city" since at least 1550).

The President would appoint (with the advice and consent of the Senate, of course) five commissioners, three from Washington City and one each from Washington County and Georgetown, who would oversee the operation of the new MPD. The mayors of Washington City and Georgetown were also give ex officio membership of the council. The police were to:
preserve the public peace; to prevent crime, and arrest offenders; to protect the rights of persons and of property; to guard the public health; to preserve order at every public election; to remove nuisances existing in the public streets, roads, alleys, highways, and other places; to provide a proper police force at every fire, in order that thereby the firemen and property may be protected; to protect strangers and travelers at steamboat and ship landings and railway stations; to see that all laws relating to the observance of Sunday, and regarding pawnbrokers, mock auctions, elections, gambling, intemperance, lottery dealers, vagrants, disorderly persons, and the public health, are promptly enforced, and to enforce and obey all laws and ordinances of the city councils of the cities of Washington and Georgetown which are properly applicable to police or health...
To do this Congress authorized one superintendent, ten sergeants, and up to 150 patrolmen, to patrol not more than ten precincts. It also allowed deputation of citizens in an emergency, and required a central storage place for recovered property and the return of it if ownership could be proved (rather than the previous practice of officer confiscation). To pay for all this, Congress declared all existing police facilities and equipment in Washington and Georgetown transferred to the new MPD, and saddled each jurisdiction with paying for any new facilities or jails needed, plus upkeep of all the old ones that weren't theirs anymore (though the U.S. agreed to pick up the tab for prosecutions -- at least those under U.S. law rather than local regulations).

Congress didn't dump all the costs, though. It did appropriate $60,000 (over $1.4 million today) to pay some very basic fees, including an annual salary of $600 ($14,000) to the MPD treasurer, $5 ($120) per day to the commissioners (carefully specified to be paid only for days they actually attended meetings), $1,500 ($36,000) annually to the superintendent and $600 to the sergeants, and $40 ($959) per month to the patrolmen. That meant a patrolman be paid $5.50 an hour in today's dollars, assuming a 40 hour work week (as it turned out, they would work 12 hours a day for seven days a week). Of course, it was all money pilfered from the old auxiliary guard account that had provided extra security since February.

In September the new force would be sworn in. According to the MPD's history page the commissionres decided that, "officers had to be US citizens, able to read and write the English language, have been DC residents for two years, never convicted of a crime, between 25 and 45 years of age, and at least five feet, six inches tall." Patrolmen and sergeants were required to provide their own equipment (including clothing) and guns. The first superintendent was William Webb, a local lawyer and graduate of the Columbian College in the District of Columbia, known to us now as George Washington University (go ahead, leave me a nasty comment about a missing "The").

The structure of the force would continue through the war and beyond with only minor changes until Congress passed the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871, abolishing separate jurisdictions and creating just one municipal council (under tighter Congressional control). Washington City, Georgetown, and Washington County became just the District of Columbia, though it is still referred to as Washington so frequently that few people realize the name is only unofficial. The change was accompanied by the end of the board of commissioners and control of the MPD going to the new city council, where it further evolved into today's MPDC.

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