H.L. Mencken: Cops and Their Art

From the American Mercury, Feb., 1931, pp. 162–63

The basic trouble with the American Polizei, it seems to me, is that they are badly chosen for their work, and even worse trained for it. The rule almost everywhere in the country is that a recruit for the force must start at the bottom, and spend years pounding a beat before he is eligible to aspire to the higher ranks. This is a good way, perhaps, to train competent night watchmen and traffic regulators, but certainly it is an idiotic way to train detectives.

The young man with intelligence enough to be a good detective simply refuses to waste the best years of his youth tagging automobiles parked in the wrong place, and stealing peanuts. He declines to take orders from a sergeant who, in nine cases out of ten, is an illiterate ignoramus, fit only for clubbing Communists and boozing in speakeasies. He is revolted by the thought of associating for years with men who, whatever their natural charm and virtue, are at best only a gang of truck-drivers and trolley motormen outfitted with shields, revolvers and shillelaghs. So he never goes upon the force at all, and his perhaps highly useful services are lost to law and order, and the subtle and difficult art of catching criminals falls to men who are truck-drivers and trolley motormen still, though every bootlegger bows to them and they are hymned by the newspapers, when a murderer accidentally walks into their hands, as the peers of Sherlock Holmes.

Imagine a Sherlock Holmes in real life, and at the beginning of his career. Naturally enough, he is aware of his gifts, and eager to display them, so he applies for a post on the constabulary. First he is examined by doctors to make sure that he is as strong as an ox, and then he is examined by other quacks to determine whether he can read and write. Having passed both tests, he becomes a probationer and is sent out with an older cop to learn the secrets of the profession. The first is a way of standing first on one foot and then on the other, so that mounting guard while a five-hour parade passes laboriously along the street will not result in varicose veins. 

The second is a method of guessing under oath how long a given automobile has been parked at a given spot, without actually timing it. The third is a way of stealing three naps a night in a garage without getting caught by the roundsman. The fourth is a scheme of oral deodorization whereby an hour’s earnest guzzling in a speakeasy will not arouse the suspicions of the captain. And so on, and so on. Sherlock stands it for a couple of weeks, and then turns in his equipment—to enter, perhaps, the investment securities business, to take holy orders, or to turn criminal himself. Hundreds and thousands of youngsters are thus lost to the police every year, and many of them belong to the most intelligent five per cent of recruits.

It is exactly as if every officer in the Army had to be a graduate from the ranks—as if every admiral in the Navy had to be a former coal-passer or mess attendant—as if every surgeon had to have years of service as a hospital orderly or dissecting-room Diener behind him. Now and then, to be sure, the scheme lets a really good man survive. I have known detectives, come up from pounding beats, who were extremely competent, just as I once knew a surgeon who actually began as an embalmer. But it must be plain that such things are miracles, and that the probabilities run cruelly against them. The average detective is simply an expaperhanger or bartender thrown into a job demanding five times the information and intelligence of a Harvard professor. He is pitted against men who, at their best, are shrewder than Morgan partners and more daring than deep-sea divers. Is it any wonder that they so often beat him? And is it any wonder that, conscious of his incompetence and revolting against it, he resorts to such brutalities as the third degree to conceal it?

Therapeutics is surely not my Fach, but in this case I venture upon a modest suggestion. It is that the corps of cops be divided into two halves, as the Army is divided. Let the rank and file be recruited from out-of-work grocery clerks, plumbers, bricklayers and farm-hands, as now, but let entrance into the higher posts be restricted to men of superior education and intelligence. I see no reason why an extraordinarily bright young man, if he survives pavement pounding, should not pass from the one category to the other, just as enlisted men in the Army are sometimes given commissions, but I can imagine no reason why every recruit should be forced to start at the bottom, with years of dull and stupid work amid depressing associations. If the good ones, after due examination, could begin as detectives, the whole force would be vastly improved, and it would be measurably less easy than it is now for criminals to escape detection and punishment. There is no real secret about detective work; it simply requires a good head. But under the present system it is open to men with good legs.

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