New York State Police

1917 - 1929 The Formative Years

A black and white photo of six 1920 New York State Police patrol cars.

It is perhaps the ultimate irony that the most heinous of crimes, deliberate and cold-blooded murder, was the germinal event that led to the founding of the New York State Police. Sam Howell was confronted by robbers as he delivered a payroll in 1913. When he refused to hand over the payroll, he was shot seven times. Although he escaped with the payroll, Mr. Howell subsequently died of his wounds. Before he died, he was able to identify his attackers, but local law enforcement officials refused to attempt to apprehend the attackers, even though they were holed up in nearby woods. The murderers were never caught. Miss Moyca Newell was so outraged at the escape of the killers that, with the assistance of her friend, Miss Katherine Mayo, she initiated a movement to establish a State force that would provide police protection to rural areas in New York State.

The Wells-Mills Bill, which appropriated $500,000 to establish a Department of State Police, was passed by one vote in the Senate on March 20, 1917. It had an easier time in the Assembly, where it was passed by a vote of 81 to 60. On April 11, 1917, Governor Whitman signed the Bill into law under Chapter 161 of the Laws of 1917. The basic role of the State Police as established in the original law is essentially unchanged to this day:

"It shall be the duty of the State Police to prevent and detect crime and apprehend criminals. They shall also be subject to the call of the Governor and empowered to cooperate with any other department of the State or with local authorities."
A photo of George Fletcher Chandler, the 1st Superintendent of the NY State Police.

For the overwhelming task of creating a statewide police force from scratch Governor Whitman turned to an old friend, George Fletcher Chandler, a surgeon and military officer he had known since they were both starting out in their chosen professions and lived in the same rooming house in New York City. Chandler, in addition to being a gifted physician and a musician of "rare ability," had an inspired view of the mission and operation of the New York State Police, and a remarkable talent for organization.

The First Superintendent

Governor Whitman appointed Major Chandler on April 30, 1917 and the next day the Senate confirmed him as the first Superintendent of the Department of State Police. No single individual has had a greater influence on the New York State Police than George Fletcher Chandler. A surgeon and soldier, with no previous police training or experience, Chandler was responsible for everything from devising candidate selection methods and screening candidates (he conducted the physical examinations personally), to finding facilities, designing the uniforms, writing procedures and buying horses. He even coined the name by which members of the Department came to be known, New York State Troopers to avoid the experience of the Pennsylvania State Constabulary, which the public called "Cossacks" and other, more derogatory, names.

Perhaps because he did not have formal police training, Superintendent Chandler introduced many innovations that, while considered radical in his day, have become standard procedures for law enforcement agencies around the world. A classic example is his decision to have all of his men wear their pistol on a belt outside of their uniforms. This idea of police officers carrying their weapons exposed was such a departure from established procedure that he was actually booed when he read a paper on the subject at a meeting of the International Police Chiefs in Detroit. Yet, the Superintendent rightly reasoned that, if an officer needed to use his gun, he would need it in a hurry and it was only logical to make it as readily accessible as possible. This wisdom of this was ultimately recognized and soon many other agencies were following the lead of the New York State Police. Today, it is virtually a universal practice for uniformed police in this Country.

A Professional Police Force

The most important contribution to policing that Superintendent Chandler made was his firm commitment to the idea of a professional police force. Despite the rigid military command structure he adopted for the Department, he recognized that the key to its success was the selection of highly qualified candidates who exercised good judgment and behaved properly with a minimum of supervision. In Chandler's own words,

"I soon found that the police discipline is different from that of the Army. In the Army...the men are directly under the officers and their orders are carried out under their supervision. Policemen are alone and away from their officers, each man a little army unto himself."

Recognizing the need to weed out those who could not exercise self-control without supervision, Chandler, over the objection of his officers, allowed recruits to go into town after their duties were complete. Those who came back "in good condition" were retained while those who came back "a little the worse for wear" were "dropped at once."

Major Chandler knew that it was not enough to hire only qualified, talented men. In order for those men to develop into skilled, professional police officers, they must be trained. The first of the original 237 officers and men began training at a National Guard Camp in Manlius, New York. Superintendent Chandler christened the training facility Camp Newayo, in honor of Ms. Newell and Ms. Mayo. The training was a combination of military drill, horsemanship and legal training provided by two judges and an assistant attorney general.

Realizing that more formal training in law and police procedure was needed, in 1921 Major Chandler organized the New York State School for Police, which became a standard for police training. To ensure professional quality education, he invited the New York State Board of Regents to evaluate the training being provided and asked them to approve it. As a result, it was the first police school in the nation to be certified by a state education board, and was authorized to award its graduates a State Certificate as a "Professional Policeman." In addition to members of the State Police, officers came from local departments across the State as well as from other states and even abroad to take advantage of the high quality training.

Troopers on Patrol

Their training complete in the fall of 1917, the Troopers undertook their first assignment, policing the New York State Fair. A notable achievement of that first duty was the development of the "herringbone" parking arrangement by Superintendent Chandler. This design allowed any driver to leave whenever he wanted to, a major improvement over existing parking schemes.

After exemplary duty at the State Fair, the 232 officers and men assigned to the four Troops rode out across the State on horseback to Batavia, Syracuse, Albany and White Plains. Strategically located "substations," generally rooming houses or hotels, were established in a town in each county. From these locations the men fanned out in pairs, riding their horses as far as 150 miles before they turned around and headed back.

Communication was rudimentary in those earliest days. Each patrol was required to report to the Troop Barracks every evening and notify the Troop Commander where it was, and where it expected to be 24 and 48 hours hence. If an emergency arose, a call would be placed to the next stop and a message left for when the patrol arrived. Often the local telephone operators, who knew everyone in their district, were able to intercept the Troopers by informing everyone on the party lines along the route to flag the patrol down if they saw it and have them call in. Close cooperation with the telephone company was established early and by 1921 an arrangement had been worked out so that anyone could pick up a telephone and say "I want the New York State Troopers" and be connected immediately to the nearest barracks.

One of the earliest challenges facing the Troopers was to overcome the natural suspicions of the rural population they were sent out to protect. Many rural newspapers voiced the common belief that the force was unneeded and an unnecessary expense. To counter this, Superintendent Chandler stressed the importance of providing friendly, courteous and professional service to everyone. He recognized that the Department could not hope to survive, let alone succeed, without the goodwill and support of the people it served.

Labor Unrest

By 1919, the worth of the State Police was widely recognized and the Department was strongly supported by the governor and legislature. The only serious opposition to the Department's continued existence came from organized labor. The State Police confronted this challenge head on during a series of violent strikes that rocked the State from the Capital District to Buffalo in the years immediately following the end of World War I.

Beginning with the with the brass works strike in Rome in May, 1919, and continuing through the 126 day Lackawanna steel strike that year and the United Traction Company strike in the Capital District in 1921, the State Police proved they were equal to the challenge of maintaining order without showing favoritism to either management or labor. Throughout this period, the Troopers were called upon time and again to restore order where local authorities had lost control. Over and over small numbers of Troopers confronted thousands of rioting strikers, restored order and maintained patrols to ensure that the peace was kept and the law prevailed. Armed strikebreakers and guards hired by management were likewise informed that, if they left company property or broke the law in any way, they would also be arrested. Throughout this period, the Troopers performed their duty and restored order with such restraint that not a single person was killed, despite the constant presence of armed strikers and concerted attempts to provoke the State Police to violence.

As labor violence slowly faded away during the 1920s, the reputation of the State Police as an organization that would always enforce the law with impartiality, integrity and incredible courage in the face of overwhelming odds was firmly established. The value of the Department was clearly evident and, in 1921, the Fearon Bill establishing two additional Troops was passed with minimal opposition and signed into law. Another law was passed in response to numerous requests from communities to have Troopers permanently assigned to them. This law allowed localities to establish substations and have a permanent detachment of Troopers assigned to them with all expenses borne by the local community rather than the State.

The Rise of the Automobile

Although established initially as a mounted police force, the State Police quickly realized the value of the automobile. In 1918 they added Model T Fords to their equipment and also purchased three motorcycles per Troop. Although the majority of the Troopers spent most of their time patrolling on horseback, from that time on, there was never a year in the History of the State Police when more patrol miles were logged on horseback than by motor vehicle.

By 1922, Superintendent Chandler would write in the Department's Annual Report,

"When the automobile appeared, the horse was considered and laws were made to protect him. Now they are obsolete in their turn. The horse has capitulated and the gasoline car has won."

Enforcement of vehicle and traffic laws became an increasingly important part of the Troopers' duties.

The Second Superintendent

Major Chandler resigned as Superintendent in 1923 to return to his medical practice. Before accepting his resignation, Governor Smith asked him to name his own successor. Superintendent Chandler recommended Captain John A. Warner, then the commander of Troop K. Governor Smith sent Captain Warner's name to the Senate without ever having met him and, the Senate approved the appointment. Superintendent Warner perpetuated the operational principles and procedures of his predecessor and, under Warner's leadership, the State Police continued to expand. In the governmental reorganization of 1927, the Department of State Police became a unit of the Executive Department and was henceforth known as the Division of State Police.

Troopers gradually assumed more responsibility for vehicle and traffic safety, taking over all motor vehicle enforcement from the Motor Vehicle Bureau in 1926. Seventeen men were added to each Troop because of the new duties, bringing the authorized strength to 584, more than double the original complement. In 1928, the State Police began policing the parks and parkways on Long Island for the first time, the beginning of what came to be informally known as "Troop L."

Superintendent Warner continued to modernize the Division. By 1928, each Troop had its own identification section, which not only provided fingerprint and photography capabilities to the State Police, but also was available to assist local police departments. The number of automobiles and motorcycles also increased and, in 1929, 112 Troopers on motorcycles were assigned full time to traffic enforcement duty.

The 1920s drew to a close as they opened, with Troopers once again facing riot duty. Instead of being caused by labor disputes, however, these riots resulted from prison unrest. In July Troopers restored order to the Clinton State Prison in Dannemora and the Auburn Prison. In December they returned to Auburn to contain another riot and rescue Warden Edgar Jennings, who was being held hostage by the inmates.

Public Service

In addition to their law enforcement duties, the Troopers quickly became the people that rural New Yorkers turned to whenever they had troubles of any kind. Before the creation of social service agencies, the State Police was the only government agency readily available to country dwellers. Living up to the vision of Superintendent Chandler that the Troopers should "never hesitate to render assistance of any kind, and let nothing be of too much trouble which you can do for the people you come in contact with," the Troopers continually reached out to assist those in need, whether it was through the mediation of a family dispute or by providing food and clothing to destitute families. This tradition expanded greatly as the Division moved into the next decade.