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NYPD Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt Argues the Police Entrance Exam Keeps “Blockheads” Off the Force
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Theodore Roosevelt, as New York City Police Commissioner, defends his reforms, including his implementation of an entrance exam for candidates, a year before his victory in the gubernatorial election. “We have appointed sixteen hundred patrolmen under these examinations ... If they were strong, hardy young fellows of good character and fair intelligence they got their appointments. As a whole, they form the finest body of recruits that have ever been added to the New York police force.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT. Typed Letter Signed as New York City Police Commissioner, to W.C. Sanger, defending the police entrance exam, February 5, 1897, New York, N.Y. On “Police Department of the City of New York” stationery. 8 pp., 8 x 10½ x ¼ in.

Inventory #21122.99       Price: $20,000

Partial Transcript:

I have read with interest the four pages of questions quoted from the Police Civil Service examinations, under the heading ‘The Reign of Roosevelt,’ and apparently gathered by or for Mr. Abraham Gruber. He refers to these questions as if they were in some way improper and not such as should be asked candidates for the position of patrolman. It may be well at the outset to state that patrolmen receive ultimately $1400. a year, and that from their ranks are developed a Chief, a Deputy Chief, five Inspectors, thirty-seven Captains, nearly two hundred Sergeants and nearly two hundred Roundsmen, with salaries ranging from $6000. to $1500 ... Mr. Gruber’s contention apparently is that questions which it is proper to ask a man before he becomes a citizen are improper when asked him upon his seeking to become the official representative of all citizens and, in a peculiar sense, the guardian of the laws and the upholder of the government ... Perhaps by quoting the answers to some of the questions we asked it may be possible to give a clearer idea of the mental development of the candidates who failed. For example: one question we asked was to name five of the States that seceded from the Union in 1861. One answer was ‘New York, Albany, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Delaware.’ Another question was ‘Name five of the New England States?’ One answer to this question was ‘England, Ireland, Scotland, Whales and Cork.’ Another was ‘London, Africa and New England.’ ... Another question was ‘Upon what written instrument is the government of the United States founded?’ The conclusion one bright competitor reached was expressed in the brief word ‘Paper.’ ... Yet another question was ‘Into what three branches is the government of the United States divided?’ Rather a common answer to this during the heat of the last campaign was ‘Democrats, Republicans and Populists’ ... I will ask any thoughtful man after reading over those answers to questions, whether, on the average, it is not likely that a man of sufficient intelligence and public spirit to know a little about the government and its history is not apt to make a better public employee, especially in the police force, than the blockhead who is incapable of understanding what the words ‘government’ and ‘history’ mean ... We have appointed sixteen hundred patrolmen under these examinations ... If they were strong, hardy young fellows of good character and fair intelligence they got their appointments. As a whole, they form the finest body of recruits that have ever been added to the New York police force.

Historical Background

Theodore Roosevelt became New York Police Commissioner in 1895, inheriting a force weakened by widespread Tammany Hall corruption and patronage; promotions were often doled out based on political affiliation, or sold. With his customary zeal for reform, Roosevelt sought to reinvent the NYPD. He established a new set of disciplinary rules, reorganized the Detective Bureau, started a school of pistol practice, and instituted regular inspections of firearms and annual physical exams. He also championed a tougher, more comprehensive entrance exam that emphasized general knowledge in subjects such as history, government, and geography.

Some critics, including prominent Republican criminal lawyer and politico Abraham Gruber (1861-1915), objected to the exam, seeing snobbery in the “Reign of Roosevelt.” As this hilarious letter indicates, Roosevelt rejected their arguments completely. Roosevelt’s letter appeared in the New York Times on February 7, 1897 (p24/c5).

Seeking to promote the idea of policing as an ethical and honorable profession, he established the first police meritorious service medals and widened the pool of applicants to include ethnic minorities. In his two years as president of the Police Commission, Roosevelt oversaw the appointment of 1,600 new recruits chosen solely for their qualifications, not connections. After the election of 1896, Roosevelt resigned to become Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the administration of President William McKinley.

William C. Sanger (1853-1921), born in Brooklyn, was educated at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, Harvard College and Columbia Law School, and became a New York City lawyer. He and his wife then moved to Oneida County on lands settled by his revolutionary-era ancestor, Jedediah Sanger. He was elected to the state assembly as a Republican, and became friendly with Theodore Roosevelt, each being concerned in civil service reform. Sanger also began service in the New York State National Guard, and became lieutenant colonel of the 203rd N.Y. Infantry, and was later appointed Inspector General of the State National Guard by Roosevelt. He was then appointed Assistant Secretary of War by McKinley and served under Roosevelt. In retirement, Sanger served as president of the state branch of the Red Cross and president of the New York State Hospital Commission. Roosevelt and Sanger were each members of the Boone and Crockett Club, an important wilderness preservation advocacy group.

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