Never Ready for Reform, Part 3/X

In 1914, when Chicago found itself in the midst of what appeared to be a crime wave, the city council created a committee, led by alderman Charles Merriam, to investigate criminality and the related issue of police inefficiency. The Merriam committee produced a lengthy report a year later. (A summary of the report, written by Merriam, is available here.

That report repeated the concerns raised by the reports that preceded it: the department was too small, its officers too badly trained and too deeply corrupt to function as an effective police force. Pointing to New York and London, the committee noted that in comparison Chicago’s department was understaffed. Where London had twenty-six officers for every 10,000 people, and New York had not quite twenty officers for the same number, Chicago had less than nineteen.

As had previous assessments, Merriam committee’s report concluded that the police officers Chicago had were too often subject to political influence.

Merriam’s published report, though extensive, left out as much as it contained. Although Merriam was a noted reformer and his committee hired private investigators to infiltrate criminal hangouts and investigate various police stations, much of the detail in the investigator’s reports, available at the University of Chicago, did not make it into the final publication.

It was a strange omission, since investigators found evidence that tied several well-known politicians to gamblers or revealed that politicians continued insist that officers who seemed to be too effective be transferred to undesirable assignments. Other investigators’ reports revealed that police officers served as fences for stolen goods, worked as muscle for politicians, or shook down pickpockets and other thieves who were arrested and brought to their stations. Some of the investigators’ reports suggested local politicians took bribes to dismiss cases or fixed cases to help gamblers. Echoing the earlier studies, the Merriam report recommended better training for police officers and less political interference with the department.

Once again, little was done.

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Writer. Formerly civil rights attorney. Currently professor. Working on new book about mental disability and criminal law in the 20th century.

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