New Orleans Metropolitan Police (1868-1877)

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Annual Report of Board of Metropolitan Police

Photo Credit: Annual Report of Board of Metropolitan Police, New Orleans, LA: 1871, p. 1, located in John Minor Wisdom Collection, Louisiana Research Collections, Cite Collection 230, Box 11, Folder 16.

Contributors

New Orleans was a much more tolerant city than most other Southern cities following the Civil War. With the passage of the 14th amendment, African Americans were given more freedom, and they did not shy away from this opportunity. Southern whites felt insecure as their white supremacy and control over the blacks dwindled. James Hollandsworth summarizes it well when he says, “The doctrine of white supremacy was the foundation on which opposition to elevating social and economic status of blacks in Louisiana was based.” [1] This ultimately developed into severe racial tension between the whites and blacks in New Orleans. With Confederates in charge, the 1868 election proved to be a turning point for the African Americans in New Orleans. Although the Democrats won the mayoral race, the Republicans claimed the governor’s office and also dominated the state legislature. The Republicans devised a bill that would combine the parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard into one single district called The Metropolitan Police District. With a new integrated police force, African Americans were able to gain power; as proven when they won a proportionate share of police appointments and a full fledged role in policing. Sadly, this type of freedom was only available when the Republicans were in control and in 1877, when the Republicans lost power in Louisiana, the number of Blacks in the police dropped dramatically, leading to the abusive treatments of blacks by the overwhelmingly white police force. Nonetheless, with New Orleans being only semi desegregated at the time, the police provided a starting point for full fledged integration.

Election of John Monroe: A Renewal of Rebellion

The election of John Monroe as mayor was quite controversial, especially in terms of legality. Monroe never received a presidential pardon, and since New Orleans was under military supervision, this was not allowed. Thus, General E.R.S. Canby refused to allow Monroe to take his seat in office until he received pardon from the President. Once this happened, he wasted no time in taking the first initiative to reorganize the entire New Orleans police department and make sure that the police force was full of conservative Democrats. As the chief of police, he appointed Thomas E. Adams, who had served as a colonel in the Confederate army. It was clear from his statements that he was not a fan of the freedmen and thus, signaled the direction the police would head in regards to race relations. Unfortunately for Monroe, “Adams could neither persuade his men to wear uniforms nor root out corruption in the department.” [2] Monroe seemed to find faith in him and even reinstated him after the police board suspended him for allowing citizens to go about the streets armed. This police force, headed by a former Confederate colonel and appointed by a former Confederate mayor, also became dominated by Confederate veterans which were estimated to make up about two-thirds of the police force, and according to Mayor Monroe, half had served the South during the war. Few Unionists remained, though it is incorrect to say that none at all remained. Despite this change in the police makeup, New Orleans remained dangerous, and there seemed to be no hope for a nonpartisan police force. The force acted harshly upon blacks and frequently arrested them for either completely false charges or flimsy charges, while whites got away with much worse crimes. This force brought to light the never-ending conflict between blacks and police. Monroe’s administration, when looking back, provided the finally straw and ultimately led to the riot.

Riot at Mechanics’ Institute

Reconstruction policies stirred up a lot of anger among both political parties and races. The police force appointed by Mayor Monroe, which was all white and mostly Confederate, was the one that participated in the riot on July 30, 1866 at Mechanics’ Union in New Orleans. This riot is commonly known today as the New Orleans Race Riot. In 1864, a state convention was held in which the Unionists present had rewritten the state constitution. In the summer of 1866, some of the convention delegates proposed to reconvene the constitutional convention, but without much avail. Governor Wells, the Governor at the time, was, “disgusted at the legislature and realized that his makeshift alliance of Union men and Democrats was unworkable.” [3] His goal was for him and his small Union faction to take and hold power in the state, but that obviously didn’t prove easy. Ultimately, Wells decided to push for black suffrage, despite his past publicly expressed oppositions. He realized that it was his only available option and formed an alliance with the Radical Unionists. The radical Union men had always pressed for Negro suffrage but it was never possible until, “it became the last hope of defeating the conservatives.” [4] By spring 1866, Wells supporters and radical Unionists began their efforts on a scheme to reconvene the constitutional convention of 1864. After finding a loophole through which they could reconvene the election, (ultimately a legality issue), the Union men began to meet in New Orleans and discuss the status of the convention. This convention would endorse franchising black men and banning former Confederates from voting. Of course, many objections arose to this convention, and it amounted to increased public tension. On July 30, when the delegates gathered at the Mechanic’s Institute, they realized that they did not have enough men present, and decided to send the sergeant at arms to find the missing members. While waiting outside, about 100 to 150 black demonstrators began chanting in favor of the convention and started to walk up to the hall. Whites began exchanging words with the demonstrators, and at some point someone fired the first shot. [5] It is impossible to know the exact events, but apparently, a white special officer of police fired a shot, and then the black marchers fired back. When the group eventually arrived at Mechanics’ Institute, a crowd of whites gathered and fighting began between the two groups, and eventually shooting occurred. The white crowd ultimately dispersed the black crowd. The white mob took over the convention, firing inside of the building, breaking the doors, and clubbing and shooting unarmed delegates. Eventually, when the police left the convention, they began shooting black men who had no connection to the convention at all. Finally, federal troops arrived and ended the violence. The riot had a huge toll, killing at least thirty-eight people, thirty-seven of them directly or indirectly associated with the convention. Thirty-four who died were African Americans. There were probably hundreds wounded. Since the convention attackers were more numerous and better armed, the toll weighed most heavily on the convention supporters. Essentially, this riot occurred because of the struggle for political power in Louisiana and the racism that was present in the police department. Thus, one can consider this a type of transition in the struggles of the South; one that turns away from economic and social struggles and instead focuses on the disturbances in politics.

Blacks in New Orleans

More African Americans lived in New Orleans than in any other city in the country. Of all of the Deep South cities, New Orleans had the largest prewar population of free people of color. This community of free blacks had a great and rich tradition. Even though the freed black men were separated from slaves by law and often times, by culture, free blacks were very close with the slaves. They were conscious of the racial bond they had with their slave brothers and sisters. With these feelings, New Orleans became a center of black progress during Reconstruction. The year of 1866 made this seem like a bleak desire and one that was unlikely to come about. In the early months of 1866, the police department had made some changes but none of them dealt with race. The acts passed by the legislature in February 1866 and the Common Council’s following implemented the constitutional and statutory reform provisions. However, these did not solve the racism of the police department and were in many ways superficial. [6]

Major Changes

General Philip Sheridan, who was in charge of commanding the district that included Louisiana under military Reconstruction, knew major changes had to be made in order for Reconstruction policies to be successful in New Orleans. Sheridan ordered Mayor Edward Heath, a Radical Republican, to reduce the residency requirements for policemen from five years to two years. This residency requirement had previously excluded former Union soldiers. He also ordered Heath to adjust the police force so that at least half of the force would be comprised of Union soldiers. Chief Adams issued an order that forbid interference with the black people on streetcars and stated that the police would enforce the law that prohibited forcing passengers off the bus on the basis of their skin color. But, this was not satisfying enough, and the editor of the New Orleans Tribune appealed for the inclusion of the African Americans on the police force saying, “this it is morally obligatory given the large population of blacks in New Orleans, and denying that fear of murderous attacks on black policemen could justify their continued exclusion from policing.” [7]

First Black Police Officers in Over a Century

On May 30, 1867, Mayor Heath appointed Dusseau Picou and Emile Farrar as policemen in the second district. They were the first black men to serve as police officers in New Orleans in over a century. The next week, the mayor appointed more than a dozen black policemen [8] The appointing of the black and white Unionists to the police force did not fully help the black New Orleans populations. The Tribune declared that, “every means is resorted to make them abandon their position.” [9]

Election of 1868-Creation of the Metropolitan Police

The Democrats successfully swept the municipal election of April 1868, and Hugh Conway therefore replaced Heath. Although the Democrats won the mayor spot, the Republicans were able to gain hold of the governor’s office and dominated the state legislature. To ensure that they had an advantage, the Republicans in the legislature created a bill that combined the parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard into a single metropolitan police district. The Board of Metropolitan Police Commissioners were chosen to have complete authority over the police force in this district and also would have the power of appointment.

Metropolitan Police Law

The New Orleans Democrats hated the Metropolitan Police Law and saw it as a form of invasion and ultimately feared that they were slowly losing control over their city. In August 1868, The Common Council condemned the law as a direct encroachment upon the liberty of the people, stated that the tax provision to support the Metropolitan Police was an excessive burden, and then appointed a committee of five men to state their reasons for protest to the governor. [10] This was unsuccessful, and in September, the legislature passed the Metropolitan Police bill. Of course, the local officials used any means to stop the Metropolitan Police from performing their duties, violence being a very common way. Unending riots jeopardized the Metropolitan’s continuing existence, especially in Jefferson County. It was stated that, “a determined and persistent opposition to the Metropolitan Police at its first organization compelled the necessity of a larger force than would have been otherwise needed, more especially was this necessary in the corporations of Jefferson and St. Bernard, but with each year as his spirit of opposition has subsided, the board have reduced the number of men, and thus decreased the expenses of the department.” [11] This opposition resulted in less representation of blacks on the Board of Metropolitan Police Officers. The opposition to the Metropolitans was summed up very well in a statement from the federal military commander in which he said, “the community at large refused to recognize or uphold the authority of a body thus constituted.” [12] The Common Council was very unwilling to accept the Metropolitan Police Act on any level, declaring it unconstitutional and advised Mayor Conway to create a new force following the old law. With Williamson’s resignation, Conway appointed the former chief, Thomas Adams, but the federal military authorities made a clear warning to him that the city was not allowed to create a police force of its own. In conjunction with this, they also repealed Adams’ appointment and put George L. Cain in his spot. [13] The board, which was temporarily all white, soon returned to their duty on the force, and their representation soon grew to roughly that proportional to the population. [14] It was clear that the most white New Orleanians opposed the police force only because it was racially integrated and run by a Republican state commission. Eventually, the opposition would take its toll on the Metropolitans and lead to their destruction. Their existence was only capable when the Republicans were in control of the state government and thus received federal support under military Reconstruction. [15]

Reform

In 1870, the Metropolitan Police Force changed their badges to ones that were round and had numbers on each badge that were unique to each police officer. This was symbolic in that it showed, “a willingness to depart from tradition and an appreciation of rational and efficient organization.” [16] Overall, reform thrived during this time period where the Republicans were in charge of the state government. “The state government under Republican administration increased the size of the force, expanded Metropolitan Police jurisdiction to encompass the entire state with primary responsibility for Orleans Parish and two contiguous parishes, mounted a substantial contingent of police on horseback and deployed other men on boats, instituted medical screening of recruits and imposed strict medical discipline on active members of the force, provided more on-the-job instruction and drill, offered pensions for long service, sharply reduced arrests for vagrancy, and gave the police larger public health and social service roles.” [17] Reform came in many different aspects. One of the main goals of the Metropolitan Police Board was to hire more capable men to serve as police officers. Therefore, they had a stricter evaluation of their physical fitness, education, and character than past police forces had required. Police surgeons examined more than six hundred men per year and were in charge of keeping the men currently on the force in good medical condition. Another change that occurred during the reign of this force was the creation of a pension plan for policemen that allowed any member of the force who became disabled while on duty or who became superannuated after serving ten years was eligible for annual payments that were up to $150. Wives and children were also eligible for this if their husband or father was killed during duty or who died after a decade of service. [18] This was done in the hopes that, “the prospect of a regular pension would be an inducement for policemen to maintain a record of good behavior and make policing a career.” [19] Another reform was the creation of precincts in the place of the former four-district breakup of the city. Each of the precincts was to hold no more than 100 men, which eventually created nine precincts and six substations. In The Annual report for the Year ending on September 30, 1870, it was reported that, “the city of New Orleans is now divided into nine police precincts numbered respectively from one to eight, and a harbor precinct. The eighth and harbor precinct have been added. [20] This increased the number of police stations tremendously and guaranteed that the territory was better covered and more efficient. This police force, though it only technically encompassed three parishes, had authority throughout the entire state. If they had a warrant, the police could go out of the Metropolitan District and execute criminals. The Metropolitan Brigade Law even allowed the governor to bring the Metropolitan Police together as a militia brigade whenever he thought it was necessary for public safety, which technically allowed the police to act like an army, or a navy enforcing the Reconstruction policies. Other reforms include the sanitary company, a special unit of the Metropolitan force, new weapons, horses for men to ride on, use of boats, and on the job training and drill which was provided to make them better police officers.

Conservative Opposition

The Metropolitan Police force quickly faced intense opposition from the conservatives who worked against them in the forms of litigation, tax resistance, and organized violence. [21] A majority of the white New Orleanians could not accept the Metropolitan Police as legitimate because they were racially integrated and a part of the Republican state government. Ultimately, “the force was founded on a government that lacked the consent of the racist conservatives it governed.” [22] Comments often were concerned with the newly forming “Africanized police force.” [23]

Fate of the Metropolitan Police

The Battle of Liberty Place was the final straw for the Metropolitan Police, who suffered major losses here, and were worn out from the ongoing fighting, riots, and withholding of taxes to the point of financial distraught. This battle, which took place on September 14, 1874, marked the bloodiest struggle of the Metropolitan administration. [24] When it was over, the Democrats did not necessarily control the city and state governments again, but it did help to return them to power and ended up being a key power shift. The Metropolitan were broken both physically and emotionally, and with their financial problems, they were forced to cut down to a very small meaningless number. This battle ultimately represented the extreme hostility between the political parties during Reconstruction and how hard each one was willing to fight. The definite ending to the Metropolitan Police came in 1876 when the federal government withdrew their support for military Reconstruction in Louisiana, ultimately making way for conservative Democrats to take control and implement their own police force.

Works Cited

  • James G. Hollandsworth. An Absolute Massacre: The New Orleans Race Riot of July 30, 1866. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. 58.
  • George C. Rable. But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. 44-45.
  • George C. Rable. But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. 45.
  • George C. Rable. But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. 46.
  • William L. Richter. Historical Dictionary of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004. 425.
  • George C. Rable. But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. 61.
  • George C. Rable. But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. 61.
  • George C. Rable. But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. 123.
  • Dennis Charles Rousey. Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. 123.
  • Dennis Charles Rousey. Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. 124.
  • Office Board Metropolitan Police. “Annual Report of the Board of Metropolitan Police to the Governor of Louisiana For the Year Ending September 30, 1870”. New Orleans, LA: 1871, Located in John Minor Wisdom Collection, Louisiana Research Collections. Cite Collection 230, Box 11, Folder 16.
  • Dennis Charles Rousey. Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. 125.
  • Dennis Charles Rousey. Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. 125.
  • Dennis Charles Rousey. Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. 125.
  • Dennis Charles Rousey. Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. 125.
  • Office Board Metropolitan Police. “Annual Report of the Board of Metropolitan Police to the Governor of Louisiana For the Year Ending September 30, 1870”. New Orleans, LA: 1871, Located in John Minor Wisdom Collection, Louisiana Research Collections. Cite Collection 230, Box 11, Folder 16.
  • Dennis Charles Rousey. Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. 125.
  • Dennis Charles Rousey. Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. 125.
  • Dennis Charles Rousey. Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. 125.
  • Office Board Metropolitan Police. “Annual Report of the Board of Metropolitan Police to the Governor of Louisiana For the Year Ending September 30, 1870”. New Orleans, LA: 1871, Located in John Minor Wisdom Collection, Louisiana Research Collections. Cite Collection 230, Box 11, Folder 16.
  • Dennis Charles Rousey. Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. 149.
  • Dennis Charles Rousey. Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. 149.
  • Marvin W. Dulaney. Black Police in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. 12.
  • Dennis Charles Rousey. Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. 156.

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