Remembering a Reformer: Stephen James O’Meara

This week we remember Stephen James O’Meara, July 26, 1854  – December 14, 1918, the historic Reform Boston Police Commissioner and the namesake of this blog.

PC O’Meara’s appointment in 1906  was part of the great Reform movement in American policing that began at the end of the 19th century and extended into the 1920’s.  August Vollmer was a product of this era as was the formation of the IACP.  The Reform Era in policing was also a part of the larger Progressive Era in American society and politics.  Along with reform of the police — i.e. the attempts to root out political influence and financial corruption and to establish the first standards for hiring, training and performance — came reforms in labor law, public education, finance, women’s suffrage  and more.

O’Meara was the first commissioner of the BPD, under the state law enacted that year that replaced a three-person commission with a single powerful executive.  This bit of history is emblematic of a reactionary strain in Progressivism that sought to wrest political control from the emerging ethnic political powers in the big cities.  In Boston’s case this meant, obviously, keeping the police department out of the hands of Irish Democrats.  In a review of Francis Russell’s book on the 1919 Strike a reviewer wrote,

“In 1885 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts assumed control over the Boston Police Department. This move, in the opinion of the author, was to ensure “Yankee control” over the department and to put the department beyond the control of the “Celtic intruders.”1

(As mayor during that era James Michael Curley referred dismissively to Boston’s Good Government Association as the “goo-goos”.)

George Kelling and Mark Moore wrote this about the Reform Era,

“Control over police by local politicians, conflict between urban reformers and local ward leaders over the enforcement of laws regulating the morality of urban migrants, and abuses (corruption, for example) that resulted from the intimacy between police and political leaders and citizens produced a continuous struggle for control over police during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nineteenth-century attempts by civilians to reform police organizations by applying external pressures largely failed;20th-century attempts at reform, originating from both internal and external forces, shaped contemporary policing as we knew it through the 1970’s.” 2

Stephen O’Meara was born the same year Boston combined its day and night police organizations to form the modern Boston PD.  His is a classic Boston Irish story: born to immigrant parents who had made their way to the Canadian Maritimes, likely in the empty hold of an English lumber ship.   When Stephen was 10 years old on Prince Edward Island the family left Canada, as did thousands of families like them, for Boston.  The O’Mearas settled in Charlestown. Stephen graduated from Charlestown High and got into the newspaper game. He even worked for a while as a reporter for The Boston Globe, to speak of the ironies of history!

He eventually published newspapers in Boston and Governor Curtis Guild Jr. saw him as an honest and intelligent civic leader whose lack of police and government experience made him attractive to the old-line gentry.  If they were looking for a puppet to crush the cops, O’Meara disappointed.  He took the opportunity to lead the BPD into becoming America’s most respected police agency of the time.

In a 1990’s report on the Boston PD, Kelling wrote,

“The early twentieth-century BPD had a well-deserved reputation for honesty, effectiveness, and efficiency. Raymond Fosdick, author of American Police Systems, (and president of the Rockefeller Foundation) dubbed Boston as one of the best police departments in the United States in 1915.” 3

“O’Meara was an enlightened administrator. As a disciplinarian, he was strict but understanding. He encouraged the police to organize into a club (The Boston Social Club, a union prototype) through which they could air their grievances. Under O’Meara, the Boston police were described as “physically finer than West Point Cadets” and as “the most law abiding and law conscious in the country.” O’Meara died in December, 1918; the author observes that if O’Meara had lived, a police strike would never have occurred.”(O’Meara and the Social Club figure prominently in Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day, a great read). 4

His death at the end of 1918 all but guaranteed that the reactionary element of the “goo-goos” would push the poorly-paid, badly mistreated patrol force over the edge.

“Stephen O’Meara, had formed an ad-hoc bargaining unit, called the Boston Social Club, but the current commissioner, Edwin Curtis, refused to deal with it, choosing instead to create a grievance committee of his own design, made of men from each station in the city. The Boston Social Club, whose members still felt it spoke for the force at large (and deciding that Curtis was not going to accede to the policemen’s demands, no matter who was negotiating for them, anyway) applied for and received a charter for a local in the American Federation of Labor.” 5

From the 1918 Annual Report of the Boston Police Department

"Sir. Stephen O'Meara, Police Commissioner for the City 
of Boston, died at his home, 5S5 Beacon Street, at 6 o'clock 
A.M. Dec. 14, 1918, from cerebral hemorrhage. After being 
absent four weeks on account of sickness he returned to his 
office on December 7 and resumed his accustomed duties, 
remaining until Friday afternoon. His health had been 
failing for a number of months. 

He was born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, 
July 26, 1854, and came to Boston with his parents in 1864. 
After a short residence in South Braintree the family moved 
to Charlestown, where he was educated. He graduated from 
the Harvard Grammar School, and four years later he 
graduated from the Charlestown High School. While at 
the high school he showed a taste for journalism, and mas- 
tered the Pitman system of phonography. The day after 
he left school he engaged in newspaper work, which he 
made his profession, becoming the Charlestown reporter of 
the "Boston Globe," where he remained until December, 
1874. Then he resigned to accept a position on the "Boston 
Journal." He filled all the important positions on the 
"Journal" from reporter to general manager. In 1902 Mr. 
O'Meara sold his interest in the "Journal" and retired from 
newspaper work. 

In 1904, with his family, he went to Europe, intending to be away for two or three years.

While abroad he was requested by Governor Guild to accept a 
position as head of the Boston police force. In consequence 
of this offer he returned from Europe, and in June, 1906, 
was installed Police Commissioner for the City of Boston 
for five years, ending on the first Monday in June, 1911. 
He was then reappointed for another term of five years by 
Governor Foss, and at the end of his second five-year term 
he was again reappointed for a third term by Governor 
McCall.
1  Fordham Law Journal, 1975, Volume 4, Issue 1, Joseph R. Crowley, a review of  A City in Terror by Francis Russell
2″The Evolving Strategy of Policing,” US DOJ, George Kelling and Mark Moore, 1988
3 “Boston’s Comprehensive Communities Program, A Case Study,” US DOJ, 1998, George Kelling and Ann Marie Rocheleau
4 Fordham Law Journal, Crowley
5 David Kruh, web article, 2004
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About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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