The “Poor” Police of a Century Ago

In 1913, the Bureau of Municipal Research took on a nagging question: could New York City’s 10,000 police officers live on their salaries?

And if they couldn’t, how were they and their families (average size: 3.4 people) surviving?

The answer to the first question was “no.”

There were various answers to the second question, but the most obvious (dishonesty) was carefully skirted by the Bureau.

In those days, first-year cops earned $800 a year — in today’s dollars $19,186. That’s way below what rookies start at now: $44,744, representing top base pay, longevity and holiday pay, uniform allowance and average night shift differential, but not overtime, according to the NYPD.

But an average police family’s annual expenses in 1913, the study found,  totaled $848.71, not counting required expenditures like uniforms, equipment and frequent fines, which added another $237.41.

So officers had to spend $1,086.12 on earnings of $800.


Police Commissioner Douglas Imrie McKay, circa 1913, about the time of the police report on impoverished cops

How did they do it? And –equally mysterious — why?

Knowing what we know now about corruption in the NYPD through the 1970 “Serpico”‘ scandal broken by The New York Times, the Bureau’s explanations seem less than fully satisfying. But the calculations — based on interviews with 100 patrolmen and their families who agreed to share details of their household budgets — are quite illuminating.

The Bureau based its cost of living on studies from 1905 to 1907, so the financial pressures on the cops were even greater than the figures suggested, the study noted. On the other hand, rents were far less than today — the average was $14.39 a year –or $349 in today’s dollars. On the third hand, the apartments were often hovels, with shared bathrooms and outhouses in the back yard.

More than one out of three lived in apartments without bath. Indeed baths weren’t usually found in apartments renting for less than $15 a year.

So how did they survive?

By living off savings, taking charity, borrowing (including pawning meager possessions), buying on installment, and living on credit. Half the families bought food day-to-day, in pitiful and affordable quantities.

Clothing, many wives said was the first thing to go. “We cut down on clothing, never on food,” one explained, “–we can stay in if we have no clothing but good adequate food is a necessity.”

Amusement was usually out of the question. On rare occasions they went to the movies. Usually for entertainment they took walks.

Why anyone would become a patrolman under such circumstances was difficult for the officers themselves to explain –particularly since other jobs from taxi driver to horse shoer, grocery clerk, brick layer, florist and mechanic all paid considerably more.

They cited job security and the pension, annual raises until the sixth year when the salary reached a respectable $1,400 a year — $33,576 in today’s dollars. (Still far short of the top pay now of $90,829.)

Nobody mentioned what you could take home in booty or bribes.

The Bureau didn’t bring it up either but recommended raising the salaries to $1,000 for the first year, $1,100 for the second year, $1,200 for the third year, and $1,400 thereafter. The paychecks, it said, should be issued twice-a-month instead of monthly, so the families could rely less on credit, the city should supply the uniforms and equipment, or at last advance money for their purchase, provide free hospital care and consider food commissaries for the officers’s meals.

Reforms did follow, slowly, in years to come.

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