“Long John” Wentworth, Chicago’s six-and-a-half foot tall, 300 pound, pre-Civil War mayor, was one of the most colorful characters in this city’s colorful political history. A whiskey-guzzling newspaper editor who skipped back and forth between political parties, Wentworth’s most famous antic was in 1857 leading a police raid on the Sands, a red light district of brothels, clip joints, and card rooms in what is now Streeterville. Wentworth and his cops routed the sex workers and hustlers, then knocked down shanties that weren’t compliant with the city code.
However, Wentworth wasn’t always such an ally of law enforcement. In 1861, during his second term as mayor (which he won as a Democrat), he reduced the police force to 75 men as a budget-cutting measure. An uptick in crime followed. To remove control of the police department from Wentworth’s hands, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a bill establishing the Board of Police Commissioners, a three-member body to oversee the Chicago Police Department. The board’s first members — one each for the North, South and West sides — were appointed by the governor, then subsequently elected by the voters.
Today, an elected police board is the goal of many police reformers, who've introduced an ordinance for a Chicago Police Accountability Council in the City Council. But Chicago’s first go-round with independent control of the police didn’t turn out the way CPAC’s supporters hope a modern proposal would.
In the wee hours of March 21, 1861, a month after the law was passed, Wentworth summoned the entire police force to City Hall, recalling patrolmen from as far as Bridgeport, then at the southern limits of the city.
Once Wentworth had the full department in front of him, he fired them all. His official reasoning was that he wanted to give the elected Police Commissioners a chance to appoint a force of its own choosing.
This being Chicago, though, there was also a political motive: A mayoral election was coming up on May 6. The new police board — a Republican invention — wasn’t supposed to begin its duties until after that, at which point it would review 1,500 applications on file for 75 new police jobs, increasing the force to 150. If those jobs remained unfilled until the election, hopeful applicants might all vote Republican. But if 1,425 applicants were rejected, they might not be so keen on the Republican Party, and instead vote Democratic. (Wentworth himself wasn't running for re-election, but acted in favor of fellow Democrat Thomas Barbour Bryan.)
Wentworth’s midnight massacre forced the Board into action. At 10 in the morning, after Chicago had been without police protection for eight hours, the Board assembled to rehire the sacked officers and add 25 new patrolmen. The Republican, Julian Sidney Rumsey, won the mayoral election anyway. Wentworth's actions, it turned out, had not bolstered Chicago's esteem for the Democratic Party.
“In some cities,” the Tribune editorialized, “in the South for example, if a Mayor should disband the night watch without notice or warning to the citizens as has been done in Chicago, a committee of public safety would wait on that functionary, present him with a suit of tar and feathers, bestow upon his hide thirty marks of their esteem, and give an indefinite leave of absence, with thirty minutes to get beyond the corporate limits.”
The Board of Police Commissioners established the city’s first detective bureau, and dressed patrolmen in a new uniform, consisting of a blue frock coat, with a silver shield for a badge, and gray striped pantaloons.
The Board didn't last, though. Control of police hiring was too juicy a patronage plum for City Hall to surrender, no matter which party was in charge. In 1872, the Council placed before the voters a new city charter, authorizing it to appoint officers, including a city marshal who would oversee police and fire operations. An 1875 court decision ruled that the new charter, which gave the Council “a clear plenary power over the Police Department,” overruled Illinois state law.
After just 14 years, the Board of Police Commissioners was out of business. Not even the Tribune, which had protested so loudly about the actions which led to the Board’s creation, was sorry to see it abolished. The Board’s president, it wrote, went too easy on officers “for drunkenness, disorderly conduct, beating a citizen unnecessarily, or for the improper, indecorous or brutal exercise of his police authority.”
Supporters of a modern CPAC want an elected body precisely to punish that kind of behavior more severely than the current Police Board, which is appointed by the mayor. The 19th Century’s Board of Police Commissioners certainly didn’t — but perhaps the very different electorate of the 21st Century would produce a different result.