Department of Records - City of Philadelphia

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From the Newsletter of the Philadelphia City Archives, Number 46 (June 1982)


by Ward J. Childs

In the last edition of the Newsletter we discussed the Police Annual Reports before 1873 and mentioned that, up to that point, individuals who were arrested appear in the Reports only as nameless statistics. However, this changes radically in the years between 1873 and 1892, and again, in the years 1908 to 1910. These years are part of the fifty year period between 1869 and 1918 when the Mayor's Annual Message and Reports of Departments grew thicker and thicker and then were published in two, three and finally four volumes. It is a period when the informational content of most departmental reports can be described as nothing less than revolutionary. In the years mentioned, the Police reports, as much as any other department's, reflect this explosion of information. The Police Annual Reports between 1873 and 1892 and in 1908 and 1910 include the expected reports of arrests made and the value of stolen property restored each month by individual detectives, of monthly arrests for each crime, of arrests per month in each district; of the color, sex and national origin of each person who was arrested or who was lodged at district station houses; and of the disposition of cases by beggar or vagrant detectives. These Annual Reports also variously add reports on the disposition of cases of violation of the liquor laws, of the types of robberies in each police district, of the disposition of cases in the Court of Quarter Sessions, and of lottery and gambling cases. However, most striking are the Reports of the Detective Department and Reports of Commanding Officers or Lieutenants of each Police District which appear in the Annual Reports. The Report of the Detective Department lists the date of each arrest made by a member of the Detective Department, the name of the Prisoner, names of arresting Officers, the charge; the Prisoner's color, sex and national origin; and the disposition of the case. The Reports of Commanding Officers or Lieutenants of Police Districts list the date of each arrest in the district, the name of each person arrested, names of arresting officers, the charge, date of return by the magistrate, date of trial, verdict, date of sentence, term of sentence and prison to which sentenced. Always appended to these reports are reports by the Detective Department and by the Commanding Officer of each police district which list specific property returned by officers. Included in these reports are the date of return, a description of the article returned, the name of the person from whom the police retrieved the article, names of the officers who retrieved the article, names of the persons making the claim, person to whom the article was delivered and by whose order, and the monetary value of the article. In addition, these reports, and later reports, of the City's Detectives and of the various police districts also include highlights of important arrests which often list the prisoner's name, age, address; cause for arrest, victim and disposition of the case. In short, for the twenty year period, between 1873 and 1892, and again, inexplicably in the years 1908 to 1910, the Police Annual Reports include information concerning every arrest for a crime in Philadelphia which ended in a trial. The value of such a vast published reservoir of information to the researcher is obvious, especially when we realize that most of the police records for the period are no longer in existence.

Unfortunately, Annual Reports in such detail did not continue to be published. Between 1893 and 1907 the entries for each arrest that went to trial were dropped from the Police Report but, at least, during these years the other reports of the Police Annual Report remain of very high quality. However, as early as 1912 the Police Annual Report changes drastically. This change consists of a switch of emphasis from an annual analysis of the operations of each Police Unit or function, month by month, to a comparison of the Bureau's performance from year to year. As a result, the 1912 Police Annual Report no longer includes such categories as the Police Consolidated Monthly Report (listing the number of arrests each month in each police district), monthly statistics of arrests for each specific crime: monthly classification of the sex, race, and county of origin of prisoners; statistics on the number of arrests and the value of property returned to owners by each detective in each month, the number of cases disposed of each month in the Quarter Sessions Court and highlights of important arrests. In contrast the 1912 Annual Report includes comparisons of statistical totals for 1912 with those for the preceding year so that one finds comparisons of such statistics as the total number of arrests in each year, the charges on which arrests were made, the total value of property stolen and recovered, miscellaneous assistance by police; and the numbers of prisoners of each sex, color, age group or nationality. Even though the 1912 Report adds such new and interesting reporting categories as the List of Fugitives arrested in the City and turned over to authorities of other places, which Includes the name of the fugitive, the date of his arrest, the charge and the place where the fugitive was wanted; and the Statement of Convictions where Sentence was suspended listing the prisoner's name, charge, trial judge, date sentence was suspended, and indication of previous criminal record, these hardly compensate for the loss of detail that was found in the Annual Reports for the prior years. The 1912 Police Annual Report is, in fact, a watershed. It marks a qualitative and quantitative change in the informational value of the Police Annual Report. It is the first in a long procession of Annual Reports which emphasizes comparison of one year's achievements in the Police Department against those of the preceding year. Although the Police Annual Reports of the following sixty-odd years vary considerably, in quality, some being exceptionally good and others virtually worthless the reports never again reach the level of these early years.

For the researcher studying criminals the shift in the focus of the Police Annual Reports is unfortunate for a number of reasons. It is apparent from the few surviving Police records for the period that the reports included in the Annual Reports, 1873-1892 and 1908-1910, are in many cases published versions of the original manuscript records, not synopses of them. For example, the manuscript record series, Detective Division, Court Dispositions of Arrests, 1884-1913, 1929-1938 which, includes, for the period in question, the date, prisoner's name, charge, place of arrest, arresting officer; and notes of whether discharged, found guilty, and sentence, is the obvious source of the reports of the Detective Department and of Commanding Officers and lieutenants of each Police District, which we have already mentioned above. Another example is the manuscript Consolidated Monthly Report and Classification of Nativities, January 1882-July 1897 and July 1905-December 1912, which is printed verbatim as two separate reports in the Police Annual Report. The individual reports published in each Annual Report before 1912 are, in fact, surrogates or proxies for the original records, and they are invaluable if the originals are no longer existent, which is the case for most 19th and early 20th Century Police manuscript records. The change in focus of the Annual Reports has resulted in removing from availability what may be the only detailed information concerning crime and criminals collected by the Police during this period. This seems doubly unfortunate because vestiges of records series such as the Consolidated Monthly Report and Classification of Nativities, Court Dispositions of Arrests and the Detectives Division's Criminal Court Record, July 1912 - May 1918, would lead one to believe that such information was still being mirrored in the Annual Reports. The long range impact of this change in focus, of course, is on the products of research. The availability of source materials shapes the contours of written history and other social sciences. Front the Annual Reports published after 1912, it is no longer possible to do such things as pinpoint the types of crimes committed by women or specific nationalities, determine the areas of the City where certain types of crimes were more likely to occur or to establish the relationship between the seasons of the year and crime, without resort to other kinds of sources. The Annual Reports for the period before 1912 could provide such information, and a great deal more. By abandoning the emphasis on detail in the Annual Reports and adopting a format that emphasized the comparison of each ear's achievements with its predecessor's the Police may have been attempting to call attention to the Bureau's progress. Ironically, for the researcher its effect is exactly the contrary.

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