In May of 1886 Frederick Ebersold uneasily commanded the Chicago Police Department. Born in Bavaria in 1841, Ebersold came to America at the age of fifteen. He landed in New York, and he moved to Chicago the next year. He tried his hand as a varnisher, then dealt in grain in central Illinois before joining the Union Army. He rose from private to captain in the course of his distinguished service in the 55th Illinois Infantry. After the war Ebersold lost all his money in a flour and feed business in Chicago before joining the force in 1867 and rising through the ranks.

By the 1877 railroad strike, Ebersold was a lieutenant, leading officers confronting the mob. Democrat Harrison's appointment of the Republican Ebersold was popular among the city's businessmen and German community, but not among ambitious senior officers like John Bonfield and Michael Schaack, who had little respect for Ebersold's authority.

Throughout Ebersold's career the department was understaffed, given the size of the city, the large number of crimes committed against property and people, and the labor tensions of the period. In 1886, when Chicago's population was about 825,000, the city employed slightly over one thousand policemen (though this number more than doubled within the next five years) who made a little more than forty-four thousand arrests. The force was, like their superintendent, largely of working-class background, and most of them were either born in Ireland or Germany or were the children of immigrants from these or other northern European countries.

In addition to Superintendent Ebersold, the force employed one inspector (John Bonfield) and about thirty captains and lieutenants. They and their men were organized into five precincts, with a plainclothes detective force stationed in central headquarters in City Hall. The maximum pay for the patrolmen who made up the vast majority of the force—and the majority of the men who marched on the Haymarket—was $1000 a year, with most earning less. This salary was comparable to the earnings of a skilled worker, but it was hardly generous compensation.

The force was relatively well-equipped, and it was especially proud of its modern signal and patrol system that permitted alarms to be sent to stations and wagons to be dispatched very quickly. The Chicago Police Department was also known for favoritism, corruption, and inefficiency. Many citizens, both rich and poor, felt that they had to look out for their own safety and protection.

It was the anarchists, of course, who had the lowest opinion of the police. In his statement before sentencing, Oscar Neebe complained that much of the officers' energies was devoted to persecuting people like him. "I read the daily papers and see burglaries all over the city," Neebe stated, "but I don't see that they catch any. There are some 1,200 and odd policemen in the city of Chicago, and every day so many burglaries. Maybe they need them to make a case sometimes, and they don't arrest them; but when it comes to arresting a poor workingman they are all there."