A failed stab at reforming a corrupt police force

Mayor Albert A. “Doc” Ames
Mayor Albert A. “Doc” Ames was rebuked for his lax oversight of Minneapolis’ police force by the establishment of an independent police commission, which required a change to the city charter. He called the change an effort “to rob the Democratic mayor of the power vested in him by the people.” Photo courtesy of Hennepin County Library

In the history of corrupt Minneapolis city politics and terrible policing, every local historian’s lodestar is Albert Alonzo Ames, four-time Minneapolis mayor. In 1903, “Doc” Ames made the national press for his shady racketeering and corrupt police force. His spectacular downfall is chronicled in Erik Rivenes’ 2018 book “Dirty Doc Ames and the Scandal That Shook Minneapolis.”

But Ames wasn’t always a crook. Though he was elected mayor four times, Ames never served consecutive terms. When elected in 1882 to his second term, Ames won with a majority of the votes in the largest voter turn- out in the city’s history. He was not a straight- and-narrow guy but someone who enjoyed a little vice. The powerful men of Minne- apolis had no time for someone who made a mockery of their careful ways. Temperance — a life lived without drink — was increasingly their model for a civilized person. Ames was leading the city but had little personal interest in being a traditionalist or conformist.

His administration, however, was run fair and square. He was a “law and order” mayor. He gave the police strict orders against hanging out in saloons, increased the size of the force and established police substations in the wards. He improved communications with the police by providing telephones and telegraphs.

But his political enemies had their knives out during the election and long after. These anti-saloon Republicans brought hysteria to the newspaper pages of the Minneapolis Tribune. Much of the vitriol against Doc Ames came from this paper, and that was true even when the owners changed. Editorials claimed that “the rum interests” — 270 saloons and the liquor distributors — owned Ames. They claimed he would allow Sunday sales and alcohol sales to children and habitual drunkards. In fact, he explicitly told his police to prohibit these things.

The police didn’t follow orders all that closely. They drank in the saloons and then slept on the job. They went off on trips but collected their pay. They were undisciplined and out-of-control, and the chief had little authority over his force.

A few weeks into his administration, Ames’ enemies formed the Citizen’s League to combat “the persistent and brazen lawlessness of those engaged in the drink trade.” They, not Ames, would see to it that existing laws were obeyed. They would “save our youth from dissipation and vice.”

The next day, one of Minneapolis’ National Guard units, the Minneapolis Zouaves, disbanded and took on a new name — Ames’ Zouaves.

Minneapolis found itself between these two extra-judicial forces, the Citizen’s League and Albert Alonzo Ames’ private military.

The conflict never reached a breaking point; there was no pitched battle in the streets. By December, letters to newspapers asked what had become of the Citizen’s League, wondering, “When did it die, and where was it buried?” The Citizen’s League had little presence in enforcing the alcohol laws in Minneapolis, and Ames’ Zouaves demobilized a year later.

Mayor David P. Jones
A political cartoon from 1905, three years after Ames resigned from office while being investigated for corruption. Mayor David P. Jones told the police to enforce the city’s liquor laws but had trouble getting them to obey his commands. Image courtesy of Hennepin County Library

The vice trade grew. The number of saloons increased to more than 350. Ames’ defenders said this was hardly his fault, that no legal limit of licensing kept the number of saloons down. The agitation from the newspapers kept up. “Lewd women” lounged about in saloons and houses of ill fame. These crimes against the public morals were an outrage.

The City Council leaned into the idea of keeping a firmer hand on the police, with the notion that the rising prevalence of vice was due to lax police work. The police just didn’t show up for work or they came in obviously drunk. Some got fired for extracurricular activities like burglary. The council established its own committee on policing, which conducted some oversight at the end of the Ames administration. In April 1884, George A. Pillsbury — Republican, Baptist, teetotaler, anti-saloon reformer and capitalist — was sworn in as mayor.

At this time, Minneapolis was annexing new areas. The population was increasing rapidly — as was the size of the police force and the number of establishments catering to vices. Mayor Pillsbury limited the locations where saloons could be licensed, thereby creating an illegal saloon industry known as “blind pigs.” But Pillsbury failed at reform. The city was still infested with thugs, thieves and burglars. He actually hired onto the police force some of the famous criminals who would later make Ames’ downfall so spectacular. Pillsbury hired Ed. A. Stevens as police clerk, who was forced to resign when he was found to be taking bribes from those “lewd women.”

After two years, the Democrats nominated Ames, who defeated Pillsbury and returned to the mayoralty. Ames still had no friends among the city’s conservative elite. The Tribune claimed that his oversight of the police force explained the social ills afflicting the city — that, under his watch, officers were “obliged by their superiors to extend immunity to the gamblers and swindling fakirs that infest the city.” Ames’ opponents mobilized to create an independent police commission, which required a charter amendment at the state Legislature. The charter amendment passed in February 1887, a year into Ames’ third term.

This new commission was no City Council committee. The mayor served as president, but other members were chosen from the two dominant political parties and the mayor no longer had hiring or firing control over the force.

Ames saw the change as an effort “to rob the Democratic mayor of the power vested in him by the people.” “If the local government were Republican no such commission would have been considered necessary,” he wrote. “In my opinion this is high-handed partisan fanatical legislation against the will of the people. And will give us a Democratic governor and legislature two years from now, when the evils now being inflicted will meet with speedy revocation.”

This commission took away the patronage that allowed the mayor to put his favorites on the force. It instituted educational and physical exams, whereupon several officers quit or were disqualified. It increased the size of the force to 169. It also made the questionable decision to allow drunk-on-duty officers to be reprimanded but stay on the force.

Not everyone embraced the police commission. The St. Paul Globe said, “Suppose a riot should break out? It requires four votes to secure action. The torch of the incendiary would be waving over the city while the police commission is in deadlock.” Businesses took their requests to the police commission in hopes of getting police services. Some fired cops set up their own “detective agencies,” whose prisoners the commission refused to accept.

A common complaint was that the police commission was more poorly suited to judging police accused of assault than a court and jury. With its extra-judicial handling of police affairs, its slowness to act and some highly questionable decisions, the police commission had no friends on the streets of Minneapolis. The committee adjourned in 1891 and its clause in the Minneapolis charter was repealed. This attempt at reforming the police and city government had failed. In another nine years, Ames would be back at the helm of city government.