March 2019, Post Trivia – 125 Years Ago

March 2019
Post 13 Trivia
125 Years Ago
John Young, Patrolman

In the winter of 1890, a severe influenza epidemic struck New York City. In those days, police officers worked under intolerable conditions and were particularly hit hard. They worked 12-hour shifts, slept in overcrowded quarters, crawled over each other to reach their cots, in rooms where windows were never thoroughly opened or closed. Some precincts were without station houses of any kind. Officers were housed in stables and/or the Central Park sheepfold. To make matters worse, their pay and diets were not very good. It is no wonder that 10% of the force succumbed to the epidemic. According to the New York Times, 361 policemen in all ranks reported sick, daily. (Municipal Police Force totaled approximately 3,500 members.) Out of this tragedy was born the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, the largest and most important police union.

On January 27, 2019, the delegate body voted to change its name to the Police Benevolent Association, as no new patrolmen had been appointed to the Department since the early 1970s. Under Civil Service Law in 1973, the rank of patrolman and policewoman were combined and they became known as police officers, and at the same time women were assigned to patrol duty.

In an article printed many years ago, a cop (appointed to the force in 1891), takes up the tale. He wrote that the flu epidemic proved to be particularly disastrous to members of the force, who joined the Municipal Police Force (NYPD) in 1891. Many of the afflicted officers subsequently contracted tuberculosis, from which they eventually died.

At that time, the NYPD had 35 precincts (31 in Manhattan and 4 in the Bronx). Queens had village constables, the City of Brooklyn had their department, and Staten Island had 4 precincts. In January 1, 1898, all the forces, including the City Park Police, were consolidated into the New York Police Department.

It was found that members of this comparatively small force who became sick and died, did so under poverty stricken circumstances. Therefore, it fell upon their fellow comrades to pass the hat in order to prevent their bodies from being buried in potter’s field, and also provide some necessities of life for their unusually young and large families. Many men in the different precincts throughout the city were of the opinion that such conditions were a disgrace to the members of the force. It was determined to effect an organization that, upon the payment of a small sum each month, a member of the department might be insured for the amount sufficient to bury him in the event of death. Thereupon the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association was organized. The so-called Mortuary Fund that resulted from the effort, and consisted of a burial benefit of $125, was the genesis of today’s $120,000 in the PBA life insurance (1994) for police officers.

In 1866, an attempt to provide death benefits was made by the Police Mutual Aid Association. However, assessed dues were so high the organization broke up in the 1880’s. The association was started at a time (1857 to 1870) when all cops were lumped into the Metropolitan Police Department. In 1871, the Metropolitan Police Benevolent Burying Association was established and bought 500 plots in Cypress Hill Cemetery.

After the bombing of the PBA office at 250 Broadway (1992), the original cemetery deeds for the plots were found behind a safe, where they had gone unnoticed for decades. In 1951, the active members of the Metropolitan Burying Association voted to turn over control of the cemetery plots to the Police Department’s Honor Legion. I had the original deeds for years, but recently returned them to the PBA (Pat Lynch), along with other police memorabilia.

Back in 1890, unless a patrolman was a member of the Metropolitan, he could not be buried at Cypress Hill. This was thought to be such a disgrace that the Municipal Police determined to start their own organization. In the beginning, the PBA identified itself as a protective society – also known as a benevolent association. In this way, it was able to circumvent city restrictions on trade unions, but it wasn’t long before employee interests were being addressed.

In those days, patrolmen were recruited from city tenements. Applicants were required to be less than 30 years of age, not less than five feet/seven inches tall, 138 pounds, a citizen of the United States, a resident of the city for at least one year, able to read and write English, and to be of spotless character (which meant no conviction for any crime whatsoever). Applicant was required to be of sound mind and body, conditions which were certified after examination by the Board of Surgeons.

Once meeting those qualifications, the candidate had to pay a tariff of $300 to his local Alderman (now City Council member). A sergeant (now lieutenant) wanting to become a captain and command one of the 35 precincts was required to pay between $10,000 and $15,000, after passing the civil service test.

The salary schedule for the three grades of patrolman (minimum of $1,000 and maximum of $1,200) had remained unchanged since 1866. In 1890, the pay of captain was raised from $2,000 to $2,750, and that of sergeant from $1,500 to $2,000 It took the PBA two years of intense lobbying (from 1892 to 1894) to get legislation passed in Albany, correcting the inequity for patrolman.

The new organization (PBA) hired the Tammany Hall connected Wall Street law firm of Kinahur, Newcombe & Cardoza, with a fund of $87,500 reportedly raised through an assessment of $15.00 per member, to draft a wage-increase bill. After the proposed bill steered arduously through two legislative session, the patrolmen were rewarded with a schedule of five grades calling for automatic advancement, with salary starting at $1,000 and increasing to $1,400.