Ness is famous thanks to television and film adaptations of “The Untouchables,” his 1957 memoir about battling Chicago gangster Al Capone, which portray him as the embodiment of the tough law officer willing to do whatever it took to get the bad guy.
But while the celebration of police violence in the various versions of the “Untouchables” helped warp Americans’ understanding of the use of deadly force in policing, creating a culture that accepts, even condones, the cruel behavior we’ve seen deployed against protesters, the actual Eliot Ness loathed this sort of policing.
Ness regularly refused to carry a gun even when putting his own life at risk. He also believed law enforcement should spend less energy attempting to violently suppress crime and more on working to repair the torn social fabric of their communities and promoting better relations between police and the public. He tried to implement this vision for policing in Cleveland, but the failure to go far enough doomed his reform efforts and revealed that successfully reimagining policing requires not just creativity, empathy and strategy, but also humility.
In 1935, Ness became the public safety director of Cleveland, a dangerous city with a deeply corrupt police force. “An evil system,” in the words of one journalist, protected officers who abused their authority and marginalized those who tried to resist. Police officers won promotions with cash payoffs, money they acquired shaking down working-class immigrants and ethnic minorities who eked out a living through bootlegging or other forms of petty crime. A 1931 study revealed that Cleveland’s police officers avoided the sort of “street brutality” that alienated the public, while resorting to torture of uncharged suspects and other violence behind closed doors.
Ness, by contrast, had learned policing from August Vollmer, a former police chief of Berkeley, Calif., who despised the violent tactics and outright racism common among American police. Vollmer ordered his own officers never to “strike any person, particularly a prisoner, except in extreme self-defense.” He taught Ness that police should be trained to defuse conflict and fix the root causes of crime, not lock up citizens for minor offenses.
Acting on these lessons, Ness launched a clandestine investigation of corruption within his own department that led to the conviction of several high-ranking officers and exposed the system that had sheltered them. To further break up the power structure that had promoted corruption and violence, he reorganized the department and sought to hire recruits with the proper temperament. He raised hiring qualifications to among the strictest in the nation and established a police academy where trained experts lectured on law, science and psychology.
One project, above all, epitomized Ness’s vision for modern policing. Beginning in 1936, he and a select group of officers worked with at-risk youth in Tremont, an impoverished, largely immigrant neighborhood where juvenile crime had risen to alarming levels. Ness met repeatedly with members of Tremont’s youth gangs, listening to their requests for recreation centers and employment opportunities, and formed a Juvenile Bureau made up of plainclothes officers determined to avoid arresting anyone. As the Cleveland Police provided the social services Tremont’s youth asked for, rates of juvenile crime dropped dramatically.
Ness described this as “crime prevention,” arguing it made more sense to devote relatively few resources to fixing social problems than waste large amounts of money on repressive tactics and incarceration. He openly dreamed of devoting fully half of his department to such work. His efforts to radically change the purpose and structure of American policing, however, were undermined by his inability to address a deeper problem: racism.
Racial hatred and violence erupted repeatedly throughout Ness’s tenure as safety director — often at municipal swimming pools, where whites fought to prevent blacks from sharing the water. After local African Americans requested a police guard at one pool, Ness assigned an interracial detail, then quietly transferred one of the black officers away after some whites complained. In the words of William O. Walker, publisher of a prominent African American newspaper, the Cleveland Call & Post, “The much talked of New Deal in the police department bogs down and reverts to type the minute it encounters a situation involving the rights of Negroes.”
Even though African American voters had been key to electing the Republican mayor who hired Ness, he was slow to address their concerns. He focused crime prevention efforts on predominantly white neighborhoods, only beginning a more limited initiative for black youth in late 1941 after learning that an African American policewoman, Nelle Hackney, had been doing such work on her own for two years.
Nor did Ness’s drive to remake his department extend to making it more representative of the larger community. Black officers never rose above the rank of patrolman, and one of his first groups of recruits in 1936 was all white. When one of those officers, Patrolman Frank Green, shot and killed an unarmed black man named Joseph Foreman, 23, while intoxicated and off-duty, Ness fired him, but did little to redress the racial imbalance still compromising his department. The Cleveland Police would not see their first black sergeant until five years after Ness left.
Even Ness’s conception of crime as a symptom of social problems did not extend to the effects of racism and white supremacy. When a white police officer harassed and falsely arrested a black city attorney, Ness reprimanded and transferred the officer without firing him. After several detectives amused themselves by wearing theatrical blackface on raids in African American neighborhoods, Ness banned the practice but took no other action. As one of his last acts as safety director, he put two black patrolmen in charge of a squad car — something the department had never done before, despite repeated requests from the African American community — but his successor quickly reversed the decision.
Ness’s unwillingness to listen to community concerns on race reflected his Achilles’ heel. Armed with a confidence bordering on arrogance, he liked to operate alone, trusting only a few advisers and sidestepping those who got in his way. He antagonized key interest groups rather than building coalitions behind his efforts, something that eventually proved fatal to his plans.
Older members of the police force, who resented his attempts to change the system, organized politically against him, working to undo his efforts. By early 1942, Ness seemed to be battling recalcitrant police officers and firefighters as much, if not more, than outright criminals. When his car slipped on some ice and crashed into another vehicle that March, after Ness had enjoyed a few drinks with dinner, his enemies protested enough to persuade him to resign.
Eight decades later, the problems Ness faced in Cleveland have only been compounded with time. Ness’s dream of a public safety department devoting half its energies to community uplift anticipated the vision of some reformers today. But Ness’s ultimate failure to overcome the resistance of organized police officers — which remains an obstacle to fixing our broken police institutions — shows that deeper systemic change is needed.
Most important, Ness’s story proves that reform cannot come from the top down — lasting change can only begin in the community. In the 1930s and 1940s, black Clevelanders repeatedly called on Ness to address the unequal administration of justice in their city, but he largely failed to listen, intent on working to excise cancerous corruption while allowing racism to metastasize unchecked.
As we now face the challenge of reimagining American law enforcement, we would do well to remember this iconic lawman not as Hollywood portrayed him but as he actually was, a reformer who didn’t go far enough — who saw the need to fundamentally realign our system of policing but ultimately failed to overcome his own biases.