William West

The Only Officer to Arrest a Sitting President

In all of American history, only one president has ever been arrested while in office. The year was 1872 and President Ulysses S. Grant found himself caught on the wrong side of the law by William H. West—a young former slave and Civil War veteran who joined the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) only one year prior.

Image source

Born in Prince George’s County, Maryland, William Henry West began life as a slave. In May of 1863, West fought in the American Civil War in Company K, 30th United States Colored Infantry; he notably fought in the Battle of the Crater, on July 30, 1864. At the conclusion of the war, he became one of two Black policemen to work for the former Washington, D.C., Police Department during Reconstruction. West was appointed to the MPD in September of 1871, 10 years after it was established.
A year into his appointment to the MPD, William H. West came across President Ulysses S. Grant while on patrol near 13th and M Streets NW in Washington, D.C. He stopped the president for speeding in his horse and buggy and gave him a warning for excessive speed before sending him on his way. The next day, on a very similar patrol, West witnessed the president repeating his behavior and thus, arrested him. While arresting the president, West said, “I am very sorry, Mr. President, to have to do it, for you are the chief of the nation and I am nothing but a policeman, but duty is duty, sir, and I will have to place you under arrest.” President Grant was taken to the police station and released on a $20 bond—the equivalent to $430 today—and he did not contest the fine or the arrest. This was not President Grant’s first citation for speeding in the District of Columbia. According to former chief Cathy Lanier, Ulysses S. Grant received three citations for speeding in his horse-drawn carriage during his tenure as president.

President Ulysses S. Grant. Image source

William H. West made a point to show the president—undoubtedly D.C.’s most influential lawmaking citizen—that no one is above the law, no matter the political power they may possess. Somehow, West’s arrest of President Grant was not controversial in its day. In fact, Grant respected West’s decision to arrest him, even saying that he knew he was speeding and deserved to be arrested for it. West continued his career with the MPD until his retirement in September 1901.

Black Trailblazers in Blue is created in partnership between the National Law Enforcement Museum and the National Black Police Association to celebrate the triumphs of African American leaders in Law Enforcement.