Director of Public Safety
At the urging of Butler's father, in 1924, the newly elected mayor of Philadelphia W. Freeland Kendrick asked him to leave the Marines to become the Director of Public Safety, the official in charge of running the city's police and fire departments. Philadelphia's municipal government was notoriously corrupt and Butler initially refused. Kendrick asked President Calvin Coolidge to intervene. Coolidge contacted Butler and authorized him to take the necessary leave from the Corps. At the request of the President, Butler served in the post from January 1924 until December 1925. He began his new job by assembling all 4,000 of the city police into the Metropolitan Opera House in shifts to introduce himself and inform them that things would change while he was in charge. He replaced corrupt police officers and, in some cases, switched entire units from one part of the city to another, undermining local protection rackets and profiteering.
Within 48 hours of taking over, Butler organized raids on more than 900 speakeasies, ordering them padlocked and, in many cases, destroyed. In addition to raiding the speakeasies, he also attempted to eliminate other illegal activities: bootlegging, prostitution, gambling and police corruption. More zealous than he was political, he ordered crackdowns on the social elite's favorite hangouts, such as the Ritz-Carlton and the Union League, as well as on drinking establishments that served the working class. Although he was effective in reducing crime and police corruption, he was a controversial leader. In one instance he made a statement that he would promote the first officer to kill a bandit and stated, "I don't believe there is a single bandit notch on a policeman's guns [sic] in this city, go out and get some." Although many of the local citizens and police felt that the raids were just a show, the raids continued for several weeks.
He implemented programs to improve city safety and security. He established policies and guidelines of administration, and developed a Philadelphia police uniform that resembled that of the Marine Corps. Other changes included military-style checkpoints into the city, bandit chasing squads armed with sawed-off shotguns, and armored police cars. The press began reporting on the good and the bad aspects of Butler's personal war on crime. The reports praised the new uniforms, the new programs and the reductions in crime but they also reflected the public's negative opinion of their new Public Safety director. Many felt that he was being too aggressive in his tactics and resented the reductions in their civil rights, such as the stopping of citizens at the city checkpoints.
Butler frequently swore in his radio addresses, causing many citizens to suggest his behavior, particularly his language, was inappropriate for someone of his rank and stature. (Gee, where have I heard that
before? - AF)
Some even suggested Butler acted like a military dictator, even charging that he inappropriately used active-duty Marines in some of his raids. Major R. A. Haynes, the federal Prohibition commissioner, visited the city in 1924, six months after Butler was appointed. He announced that "great progress" had been made in the city and attributed that success to Butler.
Eventually Butler's leadership style and the directness of actions undermined his support within the community. His departure seemed imminent. Mayor Kendrick reported to the press, "I had the guts to bring General Butler to Philadelphia and I have the guts to fire him." Feeling that his duties in Philadelphia were coming to an end, Butler contacted General Lejeune to prepare for his return to the Marine Corps. Not all of the city felt he was doing a bad job though and when the news started to break that he would be leaving, people began to gather at the Academy of Music. A group of 4,000 supporters assembled and negotiated a truce between him and the mayor to keep him in Philadelphia for a while longer, and the President authorized a one year extension for him.
His second year focused on executing arrest warrants, cracking down on crooked police and enforcing prohibition. On January 1, 1926, his leave from the Marine Corps ended and the President declined a request for a third extension. Butler received orders to report to San Diego and he prepared his family and his belongings for the new assignment. In light of his pending departure, Butler began to defy the Mayor and other key city officials. On the eve of his departure, he had an article printed in the paper stating his intention to stay and "finish the job". The mayor was surprised and furious when he read the press release the next morning and demanded his resignation. After almost two years in office, Butler resigned under pressure, stating later that "cleaning up Philadelphia was worse than any battle I was ever in."