Police Procedurals


Richard Enright and his wife Jean, the Polo Grounds, 1918

Great town names down there in the Southern Tier along the Pennsylvania border—Horseheads, Big Flats, Painted Post, Rathbone, Gang Mills. I remember them from when I was a kid and my dad would drive us down from Buffalo to visit family in Elmira, his home town. I’d make up stories to explain the names, usually involving Indians. I don’t remember Campbell (soup?) just a crossroads flicker of a place on the Cohocton River between Bath and Painted Post. Campbell is where Richard Edward Enright was born in 1871.

            My sister Rosemary is our family’s current genealogist/historian, and she says that as far as she can tell Richard Edward Enright was not a close relation. He would have been of my grandfather’s generation. But it is less than 30 miles from Campbell to Elmira, so the same clan anyway. Enrights had been in the area since before the Civil War. I came across Richard Enright when I was researching the history of the police procedural novel. I had already written a series of them, taking their form and premises as a given, never thinking of their genesis. As a genre, the police procedural is as American as barbeque or the NRA. The show Dragnet, which began on radio in 1949 and on TV in 1951 (and ran through 762 episodes), pretty much defined the broadcast version. “Just the facts, ma’am.” Cable channels are now chockablock with its new and rerun progeny. But where did it all start?

            There is always the son who won’t stay home. As a young man Richard Enright moved to Elmira and became a telegraph operator, the outer edge of communication technology in the 1890s. Then he followed his trade to the big city, New York, where, in 1896, at the age of 25, he switched professions and became a New York City policeman, just another Irish cop on the beat. Well, not quite. He rose through the ranks, becoming a lieutenant and president of the Police Lieutenants’ Benevolent Association. He stood out for his self-acquired education and his eloquence as a speaker. He was widely read and liked reciting poetry by heart. He was an avid student of art and history, especially the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. And he must have been something of a politician. In 1918 he was appointed the NYPD Police Commissioner, the first and—as far as I can tell—only person to rise through the rank and file to that position.

            It was a dicey time in New York City, especially after the Volstead Act was passed in 1919 and Prohibition tried to alter the city’s culture. Like any bad law, it fed fraud and corruption. Commissioner Enright fought it out for eight years. No previous NYPD commissioner had lasted that long. Having started as a cop on the beat, he had the loyalty of the men below him. He improved their working conditions, allowing a day off for officers after every six days on duty and strengthening their pension funds and relief systems. He got his policemen exempt from the draft and increased the number of policewomen. He did, however, face heavy resistance in his attempts to rid the department of entrenched corruption. The lawlessness of Prohibition was pandemic, and he resigned in frustration at the end of 1925.

            That same year he published a Syllabus and Instruction Guide of the Police Academy and two novels—Vultures of the Dark and The Borrowed Shield, which today are widely recognized as the prototypes of the police procedural. I haven’t read either, though maybe I will. Copies are available on-line. I wonder what he would think of my books. He died at 81, after a fall at a lady friend’s house out on Long Island. I would have been seven, sitting in the way-back seat of my father’s overloaded Willys Jeep station wagon, looking out over the rear tailgate, making up stories about the places we had just passed through—Horseheads!—heading into Elmira.

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