The Rich Blue Line: NYPD, 1952


New York’s Finest, circa 1952. Note the quaint dome light. – – N.Y Daily News

Last December we posted on the miserably underpaid New York police of 1913, with the inevitable consequence of graft.

Well, what a difference four decades made.

Our archival team digitizing key printed materials in Baruch’s Institute of Public Administration Collection under a Carnegie grant — Deborah Tint, Hilary Clifford and Sarah Rappo — highlighted a striking find: a 1952 IPA study of NYPD and Fire Department salaries and career practices. From it, a different picture emerges. By then, as the IPA’s forerunner Bureau of Municipal Research had recommended in 1913, pay had risen appreciably, reaching levels almost comparable to today’s — but other serious problems remained.

The 1952 study was part of the effort to modernize New York City government by the Mayor’s Committee on Management Survey (a yawner of a name perhaps designed to mask its revolutionary mandate.) Of course, the committee’s director was Luther Gulick.

Career and Salary Features for

In 1913, as we wrote, New York’s rookie cops were earning about $800 a year — in today’s dollars about $19,186. That, as we noted, was less than their cost of living, meaning, no doubt, that they were making up the different somehow, probably illicitly. (Today’s officers start out at $44,744, including benefits.)

But by 1952, the IPA study reported, police officers were starting at $3,725 and going up to $4,780 (in today’s dollars $33,544 and $43,044, respectively) — leading the nation in police and fire salaries. And it wasn’t because New York was the most expensive city. Far from it. Out of 34 U.S. cities in 1950, with Seattle the most expensive, New York ranked close to the bottom — 25th.

Cops made more in uniform than in previous jobs, and they had more vacations and sick leave than employees in private industry. In fact, the study found, through the Depression and early 1940s, police captains were earning more than doctors or lawyers, although the situation reversed during and after World War II.

Policemen and women — females having joined the ranks in 1918 — also earned more than most other city employees. And the others couldn’t retire after only 20 years with substantial pensions, or even three-quarters pay for service-connected disabilities (which an inordinate number of members, then, as now, seem to incur.)

And yet the NYPD was rife with problems, the study found. There were no educational requirements — applicants needed only write and read English “understandingly.” The written test questions could easily be crammed-for. There were long delays between the exams and appointments. Medical tests were perfunctory. Background checks were haphazard. Of 4,000 applicants appointed in 1947, “character questions” were raised in 249 cases. Only 50 would-be cops were dropped. The other 199 survived, with a total of 267 various charges on their records. Furthermore, the police commissioner had wide discretion on appointments and promotions, opening the way to favoritism and politicking.

Rotten apples in the department didn’t have to worry. “Disciplinary action has reached the vanishing point,” the study found. From more than 5,000 charges brought against officers in 1928, by 1950 the number had dropped by 90 per cent. From close to 90 dismissals in 1937, fewer than 10 officers were dismissed in 1950.

Whether drunk on duty, firing their weapons while drunk, assaulting civilians, or disappearing from their posts, officers were rarely punished. Awards, on the other hand, were dispersed with abandon.

And surprisingly the IPA found, police work at the time was less dangerous than widely thought. In fact, death rates showed that agriculture, construction, mining and quarrying were all more hazardous than policing. Accidents among the police were less frequent — and less severe — than in the city’s purchasing department.

The IPA offered a lot of recommendations, many of which were stymied by the increasingly powerful police and fire unions.

The NYPD cracked down on abuses. But following decades revealed just how far the department still had to go.


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