I've been watching the BBC America series Copper with great interest, partly because I really miss Deadwood, and partly because I'm a bit of a Civil War buff, especially after reading Tony Horwitz's hilarious and insightful Confederates in the Attic.
For those not familiar with the series, it centers around the misadventures of Irish-American cop Kevin Corcoran, a veteran of the Union Army who is now serving as a police detective in 1864 New York City. A major premise of the plotline, and one the fuels the numerous gunfights and physical altercations that Kevin finds himself embroiled in, is the rough and tumble justice of the notorious Five Points neighborhood. As the show would have it, New York's finest had a "shoot first, don't ask questions" mode of operation that made them little better than the criminals they were meant to neutralize.
Which begs the question - just what was the day-to-day operation of NYPD like in the 1860s? I decided to do some digging.
Snafu #1 - Most Police Officers Didn't Have Guns in the 1860s
My forays into the history of the American West naturally brought me into the history of firearms in the United States. I couldn't study the West without eventually studying guns, too. Kevin Corcoran's revolver gets quite a lot of screen time, and most of the other coppers are armed with handguns as well.
However, in the 1860s, cops and guns didn't necessarily go hand in hand. At this point in time, American police departments did not issue firearms to their members. Cops who elected to carry a gun most likely paid for it out of their own pocket. Colt, in fact, was marketing moderately-priced handguns specifically towards police officers in the 1870s. The New York City police department did not require officers to carry guns until 1887. Patrolmen were armed with nightsticks.
So while it's possible ol' Corky could have carried a gun, either by buying his own, or by surreptitiously hanging on to one issued from his Army days, the premise is a little sketchy. I suppose nightsticks just wouldn't create the same dramatic effect.
Snafu #2 - New York City Cops Actually Had a Rulebook
The premise that law enforcement was fast and loose and that very little procedural precedent was in place is another area where the BBC has taken liberties with the facts. New York City actually has one of the longest histories of community policing anywhere in the United States, dating all the way back to 1625 when the area was a Dutch colony. In those days, law enforcement officers patrolled the settlement and were charged with keeping the peace, settling disputes, and warning settlers of fire - a real danger in days when most buildings were made of wood, and fire departments lay decades in the future.
The New York City Police Department proper was founded in 1845. In that same year, the first Police Chief issued a booklet titled "Rules and Regulations of the Day and Night Police of the City of New York With Instructions as to the Legal Powers and Duties of Policemen."
There is the argument that rules are not always followed, and I'll buy that regulations are open to manipulation in any era to serve individual and political ends. But the idea that there were no rules for the police in 1864 simply isn't true.
Snafu #3 - NYPD Didn't Have Detectives in 1864
The Detective Bureau didn't exist until 1882. There were undercover officers, but their function was more to deter petty crime rather than solve major cases. No Detective Bureau, no Detective Corcoran. You'd think someone at BBC would have checked that before giving the program lead a title that he couldn't have held.
But wait, it's a television show, not a documentary! True. However, the most successful historical dramas know the world they are operating in, and engage with it authentically. Not so they can recreate it, but so they can make informed choices about how their characters would live, move, and breathe in that alternate time and place. The scenes of Elizabeth Haverford watching the Booth Brothers perform Julius Caesar (dramatically intercut with a race to stop a plot to burn NYC to the ground) are fantastic and powerful - and based on a actual historic performance by the Booths in New York in 1864. The plot to burn New York is also "based on a true story."
In short, when writers do their homework, it shows. When they don't, that is obvious as well.
Now, who wants to bring me on as a historical consultant on their program?
PS Some information contained in this post is based on my own original research. For specifics related to the history of the New York City police department, I went to their own website, which has some wonderful data on the history of the force.