[New York: n.d., ca. 1920-1925]. 25 real photo postcards. Undivided backs, each 135mm x 88mm (5 1/2" x 3 1/2"). Each with pencil serial number notation etched in negative and also in pencil to verso. Mild, uniform curling to each from storage; a few prints poorly developed, poorly focused or overexposed, but overall a well-preserved collection with minimal aging, fading, or wear; Very Good. Undated and uncaptioned, identified based on content and scenery; likely 1922 (see description).
The NYPD Riot Battalion, formed in the wake of the Great War and incorporating in its ranks almost exclusively hardened veterans of the European conflict, was one of the earliest militarized municipal police units in the United States. It was the predecessor, in both spirit and leadership, to the Department's Emergency Services Unit (ESU), established in 1930 and still in existence -- albeit with a somewhat different mission focus -- today.
While there is little in modern scholarship regarding its history and formation, contemporary newspaper accounts tell us a good deal about the elite Riot Batallion and its membership of more than 500 officers, hand-selected from precincts throughout the city on the basis of military experience and marksmanship. Earliest accounts date from around 1920, about the time the unit was organized under the command of Captain Charles Schofield. In its earliest years, the unit performed its summer training at Fort Totten, on Long Island; in 1922 the exercises were moved upstate to the Police Recreational Camp at Tannersville, about twenty miles northwest of West Point. Based on terrain and architecture, the latter location is where these photographs appear to have been taken, providing a like date of 1922-23 for this series of photographs (in 1924 the training site was moved once again, to Camp Smith, near Peekskill).
A representative New York Times article from 1924 provides a detailed picture of the Battalion's summer training regimen:
"The riot battalion...composed of 550 picked men from all the precincts, arrived [in Peekskill] this afternoon for two weeks' encampment...it comprises four infantry divisions, a machine gun company and a headquarters detachment. During the next two weeks the policemen will be put through an intensive course in military tactics. They will have regular hours devoted exclusively to military formations, and in the afternoon will attend school for instruction in riot manoeuvres. The day before their return to New York will be marked by special athletic exercises, with competition between the various companies..." ("550 Riot Policemen Train at Peekskill," New York Times, June 2, 1924, p.2).
These photographs, possibly produced as a souvenir for participants in the camp, reflect this variety of training activities. Images include a single view of what appears to be tear gas demonstration (at this time a novel method of crowd control, one pioneered by the NYPD); a variety of weapons training scenes including several featuring stand-mounted and handheld Thomson machine guns, portraits of companies in formation, and a series of images apparently taken during the final day's festivities, when participants dressed in costume (including drag and blackface) and competed in field sports and military games.
An intimate glimpse into an important and under-examined episode in American municipal policing, providing a visual counterpart to such statements as this, written in 1925: "The police department today under Commissioner Enright is a military unit, with its machine guns and well-trained men of the riot battalion, and is prepared to take the field instantly; and when tired of using the machine guns, it can use the night stick, so New York is safe forever" (John J. Hickey, Our Police Guardians: History of the Police Department of New York, 1925). In these nearly hundred-year-old images may be glimpsed the prehistory of post-9-11 hyper-militarization of U.S. police departments, a trend which has exploded into controversy in recent years in the wake of highly publicized police attacks on civilians, calling into question much of what has passed for standard policing practice over the past hundred or more years.