Lewis J. Valentine

Lewis J. Valentine was credited with getting more honest men into the higher ranks of the police department
Lewis J. Valentine

When Lewis J. Valentine was promoted to chief inspector of the New York Police Department in January 1934, he assembled his commanding officers and announced: "Be good or begone. This department has no room for crooks.... The day of influence is over.... I'll stand up for my men, but I'll crucify a thief. I'll be more quick to punish a thief in a police uniform than any ordinary thief. The thief in uniform is ten times more dangerous."

Fiorello La Guardia was in the mayoral office only a matter of months when he promoted Valentine to police commissioner. Known then and throughout his career as an honest cop, he became the worst police enemy of organized crime in that era. But Valentine had already been frequently harassed by the likes of Frank Costello and Lucky Luciano, the latter probably the top Valentine hater of the period.

During his 42 years on the force Valentine was known by only one description: honest cop. His mere appointment was a bad sign to the mob, since it had long been the habit of police watchers to measure a New York police administration's honesty and devotion to duty by how it treated Valentine, a rigidly straight cop, who attacked the mobs and crooked cops with equal vigor.

Valentine joined the force in 1903, was made sergeant after 10 years and later became a lieutenant on the "confidential squad," charged with rooting out graft-takers on the force. But Valentine fell from grace under Commissioner Richard E. Enright. He was continually passed over for promotion to captain, although he achieved the highest score in the force on civil service examinations.

To satisfy Tammany Hall and the mobs, upset by his constant raids on politically protected gambling operations, Enright ultimately transferred Valentine to the wilds of Brooklyn, a tactic designed specifically to either tame do-gooders or drive them off the force.

Later, under Commissioner George V. McLaughlin, Valentine was back in favor and promoted to captain, deputy inspector, inspector and deputy chief inspector all within one year's time. He became even more famous for his gambling raids and his incorruptibility.

When the corrupt mayor Jimmy Walker named Grover Whalen police commissioner in 1928, Valentine was again on the outs. Whalen, during his first six hours in office, abolished the police confidential squad, charged with unearthing police corruption and related political malfeasance, and busted its commander, Valentine, back to captain. (Later, Luciano was to brag that during the Whalen reign $20,000 a week was delivered to the commissioner's office.)

Under La Guardia, Valentine finally found a boss he could depend on. They paired perfectly in the mayor's efforts to "run out the bums and rats," which, while it did occasionally shake up civil rights advocates, also imbued the department with a genuine spirit of reform.

"I'll promote the men who kick these gorillas around and bring them in," Valentine said, "and I'll demote any policemen who are friendly with gangsters." In his first six years as commissioner, Valentine fired 300 policemen, officially rebuked 3,000 and fined 8,000.

He was credited with getting more honest men into the higher ranks of the department than ever before in its long-tarnished history. For the first time, the syndicate and the mafiosi faced a tough department, and by the 1940s several top mobsters, such as Joe Adonis, transferred their bases of operation to the safer confines of New Jersey.

Valentine deserved most of the credit for forcing Murder, Inc.'s, Louis Lepke to surrender, although J. Edgar Hoover grabbed the limelight. It was Valentine who squeezed the underworld so tight that crime bigwig Lepke barely had space to breathe, and Valentine warned he would keep up the pressure until the mobs realized all their operations would be crippled unless Lepke surrendered.

The syndicate finally suckered Lepke, convincing him a deal had been made with Hoover; he would face only federal charges, and be free within a few years. Lepke bought it, but insisted he surrender to Hoover. He was terrified that Valentine's men would shoot him down on sight.

La Guardia decided not to run for reelection in 1945, and it was a tribute to Valentine that all three contenders for the post pledged to retain him. When William O'Dwyer won, Valentine decided to retire. Better than others he knew successful suppression of organized crime demanded honesty both within the department and in the political sphere.

If either sector failed, the job of the other was adversely affected. (Still true today. Organized crime can flourish where either the political administration or the criminal justice system in its broadest sense—police, prosecution, courts—is corrupt.)

Valentine signed a lucrative contract as a narrator-adviser for the Gang Busters radio show but soon tired of that and went to Japan for General Douglas MacArthur to reorganize the Japanese police. He died in December 1946 after returning to this country.