The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

History tells us what the Jan. 6 committee needs to avoid

Despite the stonewalling, the committee can have an impact — if it focuses on the big picture

Then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in Greenville, N.C., in October 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Jan. 6 remains headline news, especially as the House select committee’s investigation continues and deepens.

In recent weeks, the committee has ramped up its examination of the connections between Republican power brokers and the armed insurrectionists who violently stormed the Capitol in early 2021, with an appeals court ruling Thursday that the National Archives could release some of President Donald Trump’s records to the committee. But the news has also revealed stonewalling, with the latest chapter being former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows suing the committee and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) instead of complying with the committee’s subpoena. This obstruction threatens to derail the investigation.

As the committee considers how to proceed, it would be wise to consult the history of another public investigation, by the Lexow Committee. This relatively unknown 1894 New York State Senate committee investigated police corruption in New York City and holds an important lesson for us today.

The Lexow Committee investigation was among the biggest news stories of the late 19th century and one of the first public corruption investigations in American history. The committee’s revelations about flagrant abuses of power by New York City police officers resulted in indictments for almost half of the department’s top officials and inspired New Yorkers to elect a reformist mayor, William Strong, who, in turn, appointed a young Theodore Roosevelt to head up the New York City Board of Police Commissioners and rebuild the department.

However, the Lexow Committee limited itself to merely examining the corruption within the force and neglected to investigate the greater structural problems created by police leadership. Most glaringly, the committee did not examine the role of the head of the NYPD, Thomas Byrnes, in cultivating an oppressive and unaccountable model of policing. The result? The investigation only temporarily halted corruption within the ranks of the city’s police. Byrnes escaped culpability, and his policing regime remained largely in place. By failing to fundamentally challenge the structural forces behind the corruption, the Lexow Committee allowed the wrongdoing to fester and, ultimately, resurface.

Through the 1880s and early 1890s, Byrnes, as the head of the Detective Bureau and then the superintendent, transformed the NYPD from a force the New York Tribune accused of “indolence, overconfidence and a batlike blindness to plain facts” into an efficient and centralized bureaucracy. Byrnes professionalized the department and incorporated scientific advances in police work. He created, for instance, a standardized system of photographic criminal identification and introduced statistics as the primary metric for evaluating crime levels.

At the same time, he introduced a form of racial profiling. To demonstrate the police’s crime-fighting capabilities, Byrnes touted high arrest numbers, which he achieved by mandating the arrest of “suspicious looking persons,” a categorization that discriminatorily targeted the city’s foreign-born and Black populations.

Perhaps most consequentially, Byrnes made strikebreaking and antilabor efforts a priority in a bid to persuade New York’s wealthy residents and business leaders to trust in the city’s police force. In the decades after the Civil War, rich New Yorkers — scarred by memories of the police department’s incompetence during the 1863 Draft Riots — relied on private detectives for security and protection. (Even the district attorney occasionally hired private detectives rather than depend on the police.) This left the police department politically marginalized and without support from the city’s most powerful figures. But Byrnes’s aggressive deployment of the police against the laboring masses — a baldfaced move to protect elite interests — won the department new support from New York’s wealthy classes, which Byrnes then craftily used to establish the police as a legitimate political force in the city.

Members of New York’s Protestant middle class were incensed by the blatant favoritism Byrnes offered the rich as well as his failure to rein in his officers, who were taking regular payments from brothels, gambling dens and unlicensed saloons in exchange for letting those illegal (and, as many churchgoing folk saw them, immoral) establishments remain open.

From his pulpit at Madison Square Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Charles Parkhurst called Byrnes and other city officials “polluted harpies that, under the pretence of governing this city, are feeding day and night on its quivering vitals.” Eventually, Parkhurst’s vitriolic accusations — and the complaints that his congregants leveled at the NYPD — became too loud to ignore, and the state Senate established the Lexow Committee.

On a freezing December day in 1894, Byrnes testified before the Lexow Committee. The committee examined the superintendent’s finances and exposed Byrnes to be far wealthier than any lifelong public servant should expect to be. (Byrnes, for his part, shamelessly explained that his wealth came from lucrative stock tips he received from well-connected Wall Street friends.) The superintendent also, importantly, acknowledged that his department was marred by corruption, though he denied ever partaking in such malfeasance.

Despite his status as head of the police force, Byrnes was not a subject of the Lexow Committee’s investigation. This was not accidental. By 1894, he had become a popular and well-connected icon of New York City. He was widely perceived as having single-handedly rid the metropolis of crime. (His intellect and fists routinely grabbed headlines for their ability to “induce” timely confessions.) His crime-fighting success drew the admiration of other famous Gilded Age Americans, including President Grover Cleveland and muckraking journalists Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens.

Byrnes’s celebrity and connections cowed the committee into not pressing him on how his model of policing contributed to the very corruption he bemoaned as running rampant in the department. Despite occasionally tense moments during his testimony, Byrnes left showered by applause and with his reputation and job still very much intact.

After the investigation, Roosevelt, a close friend of Parkhurst, was named president of the police board. Furious with the committee’s failure to hold Byrnes accountable, Roosevelt took it upon himself to remove the superintendent from power. In the months after Byrnes’s testimony, Roosevelt maneuvered to fire Byrnes, which would have deprived the old detective of his lucrative pension. The politically savvy Byrnes recognized it was time to go and voluntarily retired instead.

When Byrnes left police headquarters for the last time, his retirement was perceived by many as a heroic — if not tragic — send-off. Newspapers waxed about his accomplishments and legacy and barely mentioned his role in the department’s corruption. His influence on American policing remained secure. A few months after his retirement, Byrnes even published a second edition of a popular book he had written detailing his thoughts on policing.

Within a few years of Byrnes’s retirement, the Lexow Committee disbanded and Roosevelt moved into the White House. Meanwhile, Byrnes’s model of policing still reigned in New York. His professional, scientific and political innovations — which were inseparable from his more insidious contributions such as rampant corruption, racial profiling, elite favoritism and the targeting of vulnerable populations — remained firmly ingrained in New York policing and were hailed as examples for urban police departments across the turn-of-the-century United States.

This historical episode provides an important perspective on the Jan. 6 committee as it grapples with how, or whether, to investigate Trump’s role in the insurrection. While there are differences between Trump and Byrnes (Byrnes, for example, seems to have written his own book, while Trump didn’t), the similarities between them are striking. Both figures relied on charisma and contemporary mythmaking to create, maintain and expand their authority. Both arrogantly flouted professional ethics. Both believed they were above the law. And both sought to elevate their political status, even after they left their positions of authority.

As the Lexow Committee shows us, the failure to investigate the groundwork for corruption and wrongdoing — and those who laid it — probably guarantees similar corruption and wrongdoing in the future. To prevent this, the Jan. 6 committee would be advised to look beyond the events of that day and to its root causes. Specifically, the groundwork that Trump and his allies laid for years before the storming of the Capitol might prove to be a good spot to start digging.