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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Pittsburgh's Depression Era Cops

     In the 1930s a young man didn't get on the Pittsburgh Police force by passing a test. He got the job because he had pull--a priest he knew, a relative in uniform, or the sponsorship of a ward chairman. Most recruits had ended their schooling early, in some cases so early they couldn't read or write. Some came from neighborhoods where joining the police force was considered an act of treason. Had it not been for the Great Depression, many of these men would have found work in the mills, driving a truck, or in the building trades. But when the bottom fell out of the employment market, police department jobs looked good. This was a  time when people who couldn't find work either lived off their relatives, stole, begged, or starved.

     In those days, the city didn't supply its officers with the tools of the trade. A rookie had to purchase his own uniform, badge, billy club, gun, and call-box key. If he planned on firing his revolver, he'd have to buy his own ammunition, and if he wanted to hit what he shot at, he'd have to arrange for his own firearms training.

     One night on Pittsburgh's South Side, a rookie responding to a grocery store hold-up saw the robber running out of the place with a gun in his hand. The young cop, in fumbling with his second-hand revolver, accidentally shot the hold-up man in the shoulder. The wounded robber stopped in his tracks, dropped his gun, and surrendered. But before the rookie could collect his thoughts, a pair of seasoned patrolmen come on the scene and took credit for the arrest. By stealing the pinch, the veterans got promoted to the detective bureau. The rookie got nothing but a little wiser. This was police training, 1930's style.

     Every cop in Pittsburgh began his career as a substitute officer. Subs were expected to attend roll-call at the beginning of each shift--three times a day--until someone was needed to replace a regular officer who hadn't shown up for duty. A sub might report for work three times a day for weeks before getting an assignment. If a sub didn't get work he didn't get paid, and when he was assigned temporary shift duty, he was paid what the man who had called off earned. Cops who joined the force in the 1930s worked from three to six years as subs before they got on the job full time.

     A few Pittsburgh cops had German backgrounds, and some were Italian, but most were Irish because the city was controlled by Irish politicians. But this western Pennsylvania mill town wasn't all Irish. The city had a thriving Chinatown as well as Polish, Russian, German, and Italian neighborhoods. Most of the city's black population lived in the Hill District, a neighborhood east of the downtown business district. One of the best-known and respected foot patrolman of the era was a black officer who walked the beat on the South Side, and on the Hill, a pair of black cops in plainclothes worked vice. But black cops were never promoted, and only white officers were allowed inside a patrol car.

     During the depression sprawling shanty-towns sprung up around the city. There was a large encampment in the woods near Tropical Avenue in the Banksville section of town. The residents of this makeshift ghetto fed and clothed themselves off a nearby garbage dump. On the fringes of downtown, homeless people the police called "cavemen" camped in caves they had dug out of the hillsides. Occasionally a caveman or two would drink too much moonshine and stagger into the business district where the police would scoop them up and haul them off to jail in a paddy wagon.

     A pair of devastating floods hit Pittsburgh in 1936 and 1937, and downtown, police in rowboats had to rescue customers and employees from the second story of Kaufman's Department Store. In 1936, a Pittsburgh patrolman lost his life when he slipped into the swollen Ohio River between two barges.

     In the thirties, Pittsburgh police officers directed traffic, operated the city run ambulance service, rode paddy wagons, or walked a beat. There were a handful of detectives, vice cops, and a few patrol car and motorcycle officers. Sergeants and lieutenants and their clerical personnel worked inside a dozen station houses throughout the city. Station number 1 was located downtown, number 2 on the Hill, 3 in Lawrenceville, 4 in Oakland, 5 in East Liberty, 7 on the South Side, and so on.

     In those days cops didn't carry two-way radios. They kept in touch by telephoning the station every hour or so from call-boxes situated along their beats. Patrol cars were equipped with one-way radios which meant that radio messages could be received in the car but not transmitted. To acknowledge a transmission from the radio dispatcher, one of the patrol car officers had to telephone the station from a call box.

     Since law enforcement is an around-the-clock operation, the workday was divided into three, eight-hour shifts, or "turns" as Pittsburgh cops called them. In the old days, every station house had a sergeant on duty during each turn. These sergeants exercised absolute authority over the cops on the beat and they seldom left the station except to check on a patrolman suspected of sleeping or drinking on the job. Offending patrol officers were assigned so-called "penalty beats" for thirty days. These beats were located in the remote sections of the city and involved long walks between call-boxes.

     Officers on patrol shook doors, reported in on call-boxes, and handled disturbances such as barroom fights and domestic flare-ups. Downtown, cops wearing white gloves directed traffic while officers on paddy wagon duty hauled drunks, crazy people, tramps, and prostitutes to jail. The ambulance crew picked up the sick, the old, and the injured, and carried corpses, often ripe, down endless flights of hillside stairways. Beat cops, besides maintaining order, rendered a variety of unofficial social services. A distraught wife could speak to a patrolman about her drunken husband and the officer might walk into the bar and yank the domestic slacker onto the street for a lecture and a warning.

     In the 1930s, Pittsburgh police officers were paid in cash. In many police households there was a difference between what the officer earned and the amount he turned over to his wife. In other words, a lot of cops skimmed a little off the top for themselves. One police officer's wife, after her husband suffered a heart attack, went to the station to pick up his pay. When she counted it out, she thought they had given him a raise. A cop they called "Bullet" because he was quick to use his gun, hid a fifty-dollar bill in the barrel of his revolver. When confronted by a rabid dog, he shot his gun, and his stash.

     The prohibition era featured a wave of violent crime in New York and Chicago, and in Pittsburgh, three bootleggers from Stowe Township, the Volpe brothers, were gunned-down on the Hill in a St. Valentine's Day style massacre. The Volpes were murdered on the corner of Chatam and Wylie Streets by rival bootleggers from New York City.

     Pittsburgh in the 1930s had it share of whorehouses, at that time called "sporting houses," and a few of them were palatial. The most spectacular sporting house was located on the North Side where Three Rivers Stadium once sat. The police called this cluster of cathouses the "blackberry patch." The madams paid local politicians and ranking police officers for protection. One whorehouse proprietor even built a special men's room for cops on the beat. Detectives used prostitutes as confidential informants, and every so often a vice cop would arrange an illegal, whorehouse abortion for the daughter of a judge or prominent politician.

     Gamblers rolled dice in pool halls, bars, after-hour clubs, and casinos. Ordinary citizens played the daily number for a nickel or a dime--a racket said to have originated in Pittsburgh by Gus Greenlee, Bill Synder, and a guy named Woggie Harris. The gambling bosses paid for police protection, but every so often the cops would raid a joint to remind the racketeers what they were paying for.

     Policing in the 1930s was nothing like it is today. Cops were all male, mostly Irish, poorly educated, and undertrained. There were no hiring standards, and corruption was institutionalized. Because there was almost no public accountability, police brutality was simply part of the job. While the official pay was extremely low, cops made up the difference through petty graft. If a police officer could handle himself physically, and kept his political fences mended, he had a job for life. For most people, the depression era was a terrible time, but for cops, it was, in many ways, the best of times.           

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