FBI Influence On State And Local Police Research Paper

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This research paper reviews the history of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) influence on US police agencies over the past 80 years. The FBI has exercised direct and indirect influence over American policing through a variety of activities, including the national fingerprint repository, the national crime lab, training for state and local police, the Uniform Crime Report system, the National Crime Information Center, direct investigative assistance, anti-crime task forces, and most recently, the national system for making investigative DNA comparisons. Perhaps of equal importance, the FBI was one of the leading agencies in the evolution toward professional policing, and was unparalleled in its focus on public relations and image management.

Before The Bureau

Formalized and structured policing did not develop in the United States until the mid-nineteenth century. Initially only in a few larger cities, formal police departments spread rapidly to smaller cities after the Civil War. However, policing remained a city function throughout the nineteenth century. Although sheriffs and constables provided some level of law enforcement for rural areas, neither the states nor counties established formal police agencies during this period. Cities acted out of necessity, because rapid growth and immigration brought crime and disorder, and no other level of government was able or willing to assume the responsibility. American political culture and tradition combined with Constitutional restrictions to assure policing would be a local responsibility. The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution reserved all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government for the states or the people. Since policing is not even mentioned by the Constitution, this precluded the development of any type of national police agency. Even though the states were not precluded by any legal constraint from forming organized police forces, American preference for decentralized government and local control strongly favored local police.

The federal government did exercise some law enforcement powers. They had authority over crimes against the federal government, such as tax evasion and treason, and authority over crimes in the territories and on the high sea. United States Marshals were the first federal law enforcement officers followed by more specialized officers who protected the mail, enforce alcohol excise taxes and combated smuggling of goods to avoid tariffs. The first federal agency created solely for the purpose of investigating crimes was the United States Secret Service, established in 1865 to investigate and arrest counterfeiters. A bureau of the Treasury Department until 2002, the Secret Service was assigned the task of protecting the President after the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 because no other agency was available for the task.

The twentieth century brought widespread changes in American law enforcement and a greatly expanded role for counties, states and the federal government. By 1900 organized police forces were present in virtually every city of any size. As the century progressed two developments pushed states to begin organizing uniformed law enforcement agencies, the automobile and labor unrest. Rural areas still had little or no organized policing, so states established either state police or highway patrols. In the latter half of the century, most counties formalized their sheriffs offices into structured police agencies or formed county police to perform this function.

The federal government also expanded its role in law enforcement. Federal laws exercising control over narcotics and firearms were passed under the authority of the federal taxing authority in 1916 and 1934 respectively. These laws did not prohibit heroin or machine guns, they simply placed a tax that was higher than people were willing to pay. As tax laws, they avoided the restriction on federal authority (Vizzard 1997). In addition, from 1920 till 1933 federal law prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages as a result of the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. Prohibition brought a wave of organized criminal activity and public corruption that generated demand for reform. Policing in the United States had been perceived as highly political and tainted by corruption from the beginning (Walker and Katz) and federal prohibition agents did not enjoy a better reputation (Okrent). Police reformers, such as Berkeley Police Chief August Vollmer had been campaigning for so called professional policing from early in the century. Their goals were the institution of civil service hiring, formal training and education, application of technology and science and independence from political control (Walker and Katz). The call for improved policing received national attention in 1931 as a result of the report from the Wickersham Commission, appointed by President Hoover to examine law enforcement in the United States (Walker and Katz).

J Edgar Hoover Assumes Control And Builds Mutual Dependence

In 1924, at the height of Prohibition, Attorney General Harlan Stone appointed John Edgar Hoover as Director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (BI). Originally formed in 1908, the BI was an obscure investigative unit with very limited jurisdiction and a poor reputation (Gentry). Hoover was a young lawyer who had worked at BI during World War I and the following years. Although very young and junior in the Justice Department, Hoover proved exceptional at bureaucratic organization. Over the next decade he survived two changes in administration while expanding both the size of the organization and its jurisdiction (Gentry). In 1935 the agency’s name was finally changed to the current Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

By aggressively pursuing real organizational reform and aggressive public relations, the FBI successfully developed a reputation for both honesty and efficiency that separated it from other law enforcement agencies from the 1930s through the early 1950s. Even though the law enforcement agencies of the Department of Treasury arrested and prosecuted far more offenders for violating federal law than did the FBI (Millspaugh), and local police continued to handle most crime, the FBI was seen by the public as what the FBI website describes as “America’s premier law enforcement agency.” This was accomplished by a combination of pursuing the most recent innovations in the applications of science and technology to criminal investigation, hiring well educated Special Agents, rigid discipline and rigid control of image. Hoover was obsessive in protecting the reputation of his agents and his bureau (Gentry; Powers 1983; Sullivan). This required that the FBI maintain a clear distinction from law enforcement in general, which did not enjoy a similar reputation. Yet, the FBI needed the support and assistance of local and state police. Police officials had considerable influence on politicians and local police had far more sources of information than the FBI.

The FBI pursued these goals in a number of ways. The Bureau of Investigation had assumed control of federal fingerprint files and consolidated them with a centralized file of prints taken by local police and maintained centrally by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in 1924 (FBI). Although local police agencies had pioneered the use of fingerprints for identification, only a federal agency could provide the sort of central clearing house that would fully capitalized on their potential in a large and mobile nation. Contrary to the belief of many citizens, the FBI could not identify a person from latent prints left at a crime scene. A search of the files required a full set of rolled fingerprints and would continue to do so until computer technology developed to a level that allowed rapidly comparing a single latent fingerprint with the millions of individual prints in a file. But the centralized FBI file did allow the identification of persons in custody and provided a central library of prints from arrested persons. Once a potential suspect was identified, a latent print could be compared with the person’s rolled prints. If the person had a local arrest record, the police could do this on their own. However, if the person had no such record, they were dependent on the FBI to make the comparison with the prints in the central file. This central finger print file created a symbiotic relationship between state and local law enforcement and the FBI unlike any relationship that had existed with a federal agency before. The FBI needed the cooperation of the police to build its fingerprint files by submitting fingerprints on all persons arrested, and the police needed FBI support in accessing the central file.

Technology And Training The Cornerstones

Although the fingerprint files created a mutual dependency, the FBI Laboratory did not. Initially established in 1932 to conduct research, the FBI Laboratory soon grew to become the largest and most diverse forensic laboratory in the country (FBI). The early technologies, such as fingerprint, tool mark and ballistic comparisons, had all been initiated by progressive local police agencies, such as Berkeley, California (Walker and Katz), but these technologies were not available to the majority of small or medium sized departments. Thus many of them came to depend on the FBI for support in the area of scientific investigation throughout the period from the 1930s through the early 1950s. The FBI laboratory served a variety of functions. First and foremost, it publicized and popularized the use of forensics in criminal investigation. Previously, police had to depend on eye witnesses or confessions to prove their cases. The dependence on confessions had produced a sordid history relating to police use of force during interrogations to extract confessions. In addition to popularizing “scientific investigation,” the FBI provided direct service to police in the form of evidence examination as well as training and support for police personnel.

Training became a key component in the FBI support of local police. In 1935, the FBI established its National Academy (NA) to train local police officer. The NA would prove one of the FBI’s most successful endeavors in building support among local police. Selected candidates attended classes in investigative techniques for several weeks at no expense to their parent agencies. Attendance at the National Academy soon became a status symbol for any ambitious police officer. The FBI focused on mid-level managers and followed up by making them members of the National Academy Associates. Special Agents were specifically assigned to facilitate and review applications. These same NA Coordinators arranged mixed training and social events that assured the NA graduates would remain connected to the FBI for their entire careers. Because police agencies routinely sent some of their most promising people to the NA and because NA attendance enhanced the graduates resume, the graduates routinely moved to the top positions in their respective agencies. Over time, this placed individuals with close ties to the FBI in charge of the majority of medium sized police agencies in the country. Although large agencies such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles police departments tended to resist this trend, the NA and the accompanying follow up provided the FBI with substantial influence over and support from police. The NA also served to provide much needed training to key members of many police agencies in a time when such training was not available elsewhere. Although NA training may not seem advanced in the current era where universities and police agencies offer many options, it likely served as a key component of modernizing police before such options were available.

The FBI’s training role did not stop with the National Academy. Over time, the FBI developed a cadre of skilled instructors, who provided training on a variety of subjects to local police. Up to the late 1950s only large police agencies and state police/highway patrols maintained formal training academies. Many officers learned on the job or received, at most, a short orientation upon employment. The FBI provided instructors for pre-service and in-service training, cost free. Surprisingly, the topics for instruction were not restricted to the areas where FBI expertise was greatest, such as law and investigation. Instruction ranged from unarmed combat to homicide investigation. For police agencies with limited budgets and staffing, this cost free training proved highly popular. Thus, cost free training was a critical element in maintaining FBI influence over local police.

The cost free nature of the FBI supplied training has been viewed as so fundamental to the FBI that the agency has even sought to undercut training offered by other federal agencies which involved cost sharing for fear that it would create a precedent. In 1992 this author was a member of the joint Justice Treasury Working Group to provide specialized training to local and state police at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Although the FBI had a representative on the advisory board for the project and it was a Justice Department initiative, the FBI Assistant Director for Training openly urged members of the NA Associates to lobby Congress in opposition to the program.

Over time the FBI expanded its training role by developing both schools and field training cadres in a number of areas. One example is Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) tactical training. Although the SWAT concept was developed by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in the 1960s (Cannon), the FBI soon developed its own SWAT teams and SWAT school at the FBI Academy. By the early 1970s, the FBI became the dominate presence in SWAT training.

Field Operations And Investigative Support

Although these ancillary support functions constituted the core of the FBI program for supporting and gaining support from local police, some investigative functions also proved helpful. Federal criminal jurisdiction was greatly expanded during the 1930s as Congress began using the interstate commerce power granted by the Constitution to expand federal authority. Although the United States Marshals Service now takes the lead in apprehending federal fugitives, the FBI exercised this role for many years. While local agencies had limited interest in federal fugitives, they had much more interest in locating their own fugitives. Congress provided the FBI with a significant mechanism for assisting local police by passing the Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution (UFAP) statute. Although virtually never used to prosecute anyone, this law created federal jurisdiction for seeking and arresting violators of state law, who fled across state lines. Along with the Dyer Act making interstate transportation of stolen automobiles a federal crime, UFAP allowed the FBI to facilitate the return of both fugitives and stolen cars that would have otherwise presented a significant administrative problem for local police. In addition, the FBI routinely investigated bank robberies under federal jurisdiction because of government insurance and any kidnapping suspected of involving interstate movement. Practically speaking, the FBI often worked on kidnappings that involved no interstate movement. Many local agencies with limited resources were happy to turn most of these resource intensive cases over to the FBI.

Thus, three functions formed the basis for state and local police dependence on the FBI during the J. Edgar Hoover era: identification services, forensics and training. Concurrently, there were forces that generated competition and friction between the FBI and police. The FBI is charged with investigating violations of the federal civil rights laws. This sometimes places them in the position of investigating allegations against police officers. This became a particularly sensitive issue during the 1960s in the South when some police were directly involved in resisting racial integration (DeLoach). Another source of friction was Hoover’s obsession with the publicity and fear of the FBI being blamed for the actions of other agencies. As a result, the FBI routinely announced the arrest of fugitives or other offenders arrested by local police and resisted working too closely with police investigators on crimes in which both agencies had jurisdiction. Many police officers tended to view the “feds” as either taking over their investigations or taking credit for their work. In addition, some prominent figures in policing, such as Chief William Parker of Los Angeles and Superintendent OW Wilson of Chicago, resented Hoover’s high public profile as the “nations leading law enforcement officer.”

The Police Pursue An Improved Image

Both the FBI and police reformers had adopted the ideas of the Progressives, who advocated de-politicizing governmental operations, recruiting the best personnel through competitive hiring, increasing efficiency of operations, standardizing procedures, adapting technology and providing managers authority to run their agencies. While the FBI received extensive laudatory publicity in magazines and books such as The FBI in Peace and War and films like The FBI Story (Powers 1983), local police reformers labored largely in obscurity. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century police were portrayed in the Boston Blackie and Thin Man films as well as print media as either irrelevant or incompetent in solving crimes. The literary tradition of private detectives being the solvers of crime the police were too dense or unimaginative dated back to Arthur Conan Doyle. The movies followed this pattern, but began to make exceptions for federal agents in movies like G Men, produced in 1935. In the period after World War II, FBI agents became the epitome of the clean cut, honest American hero in the popular media.

The first to break out of this pattern was William Parker. Parker assumed the position of chief in the LAPD in 1950. He instituted a program of reform reminiscent of Hoover’s. Training and hiring standards were improved. Compliance with department rules, physical fitness and appearance were strictly enforced (Cannon). Unlike small suburban departments like Berkeley, LAPD was far more visible. This visibility was greatly enhanced by fortuitous geographic location, advancing communications technology and social change. In the early 1950s, America was shifting from radio to television as a primary source of home entertainment. One of the earliest scripted dramas to attain popularity was based on LAPD detectives. Dragnet was originally created by a young actor and producer, Jack Webb, as a radio show but soon made the transition to television (Cannon). Chief Parker provided support for the production on the condition of script review. The resulting series was the first of what would become known as police procedurals. Two LAPD detectives were portrayed as working diligently to solve crimes ranging from car theft to murder. As a result, Americans were presented with a very different view of local police than had been traditionally presented in films. LAPD went on to provide support and technical advice to numerous television series and films. Although the FBI’s influence can only be implied, the pattern was clear. Law enforcement emulated the FBI’s systematic efforts to shape an image of honesty, courage and technical efficiency through the popular media. This recognition of the importance of both media and public image, likely owe much to the successful model demonstrated by the FBI.

The Relationship Evolves

The relationship of the FBI with other law enforcement agencies underwent a significant change after the death of J. Edgar Hoover in 1972. The forces for change had already begun to reshape the relationship, but the rate of change greatly increased after Hoover died. Hoover had dominated the agency for almost 50 years. Virtually no agency head had every exercised such long or total control of a federal agency as Hoover (Lewis 1980). During the 1960s, local law enforcement had matured technically. Numerous states and local police agencies had opened their own forensic laboratories. In 1969 the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), an agency of the Justice Department, began granting money to states and local governments for the upgrading of police and other justice functions. As a result of LEAA support, states began to adopt police officer standards and training (POST) commissions, which established training requirements for new police officers (Walker and Katz). The POST model, developed in California during the late 1950s, (California POST) spread to all 50 states by the early 1970s. The combination of required training and selection standards and increased funding from LEAA radically accelerated the transition of police agencies to a more professionalized model. LEAA also provided forgivable loans for college expenses to those who entered law enforcement. Many police officers took advantage of this funding to return to school, and criminal justice programs in colleges and universities proliferated. Although the expansion of POST basic academies and advanced training increased the demand for FBI instructors, these changes also made the FBI only one of several entities engaged in training and professionalization of police.

Although Hoover had carefully built his relations with police and nurtured the dependence of police on the FBI, he had always kept his agents at arm’s length enough from other law enforcement agencies to assure the FBI could retain full control over all its investigations and avoid any guilt by association from the actions of others. Although this approach served to protect the FBI from potential criticism and negative publicity, it also engendered a degree of mistrust and alienation. Police officers often expressed the view that FBI agents expected to receive information from local police, but would seldom share information. Although individual Special Agents often worked conscientiously to overcome this impression, it was wide spread.

After Hoover’s death, power in the FBI became more decentralized, and procedures began to change. Hoover was replaced briefly by L. Patrick Gray, who resigned after failing to receive Senate confirmation as a result of accusations of aiding in the Watergate cover up. In 1993 Clarence Kelley was appointed director. Although Kelley spent 21 years as an FBI Special Agent and rose to the position of Special Agent in Charge, he subsequently served 12 years as the Kansas City, Missouri, Chief of Police. Under Kelley the FBI shifted its law enforcement emphasis to organized and white collar crime, began working undercover operations and began to work more cooperatively with other law enforcement agencies (FBI).

Hoover’s death also marked a turning point in the FBI’s image. Hoover had been largely successful in controlling any negative publicity regarding the agency and engineered substantial positive portrayals (Vizzard 2008). The combination of the Watergate investigations and later investigations by the Senate into intelligence gathering broke down the historic reticence of the media to criticize the FBI. Although this may have been viewed as negative within the agency, it removed the FBI from its pedestal; it likely reduced the police perception of the FBI as a privileged group somewhat separate from the rest of law enforcement. In subsequent years the FBI has been the subject of several serious expose´s, including the conviction of Special Agents John Connolly for aiding Boston organized crime figure Whitey Bulger and Robert Hanssen for espionage, as well as criticism for numerous actions, including the Ruby Ridge and Waco sieges. However, the FBI has continued to thrive as an agency and build bridges to the police community.

A Partnership Evolves

Since the late 1960s the FBI has supported law enforcement through operation of the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Although NCIC is governed jointly by state and federal representatives, its operation depends on the FBI. This system provides law enforcement with computerized, online indices of stolen property, wanted persons and criminal records. In addition, the system has been enhanced to provide computerized photographs and other identifying data. The FBI continues to maintain the national fingerprint files on arrested persons, and has established a centralized DNA file. The fingerprint file can be searched for a match with a single latent fingerprint. These centralized identification and information functions with records on millions of previously arrested persons, wanted felons, stolen property and missing children provide a critical link in the investigative and law enforcement functions. As has been the case from the inception of the FBI’s fingerprint file, the FBI is as dependent on police agencies for submission of information as the police are on the FBI. In addition to continuing forensic science support, the FBI has provided police with investigative assistance from the National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) which popularized behavioral analysis, or criminal profiling (FBI).

Although forensic advances such as DNA analysis and single fingerprint search have proven far more important in the solution of crime, behavioral analysis has captured the public imagination as criminal profiling. By applying inductive logic to evidence from the investigation using past offender patterns, behavioral profilers seek to describe identifying demographic characteristics and predict behavior of offenders based on their past patterns of activity. Because this process is expensive and only applicable in cases where significant unique information about the offender’s actions can be developed from the investigation, most police agencies do not find it practical to employ behavioral analysts. The NCAVC also serves as a national clearing house for information on serial violent offenders and provides alerts to police via its Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP). A number of localities have emulated these latter functions with regional centers that track violent serial offenses on a state or regional level (New Jersey State Police; New York State Police).

In addition to the National Academy, identification files and the laboratory, two other early FBI efforts at creating links to police have proven successful, the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. The UCR is a compilation of crime and arrest data from police agencies throughout the country. For many years the data in this report has constituted the “crime rate” for most of the public, policy makers and the media. Comparison of the UCR figures with those of the National Institute of Justice’s National Crime Victim Survey (NCVS) clearly reveals that it does not fully count crime in the country, as many crimes are not reported to police (Clinton). However, it does reflect trends and has one significant advantage over the more accurate NCVS. The UCR data is reported by political jurisdiction; whereas the NCVS is national data drawn from sampling. Thus, the UCRs have long been a focus of police, who are organized by geography. Neither police managers, local politicians nor the public are as concerned with national crime rates as they are with crime in their own community. Although the UCR does not fully report crime, it does allow for calculation of trends over time. These have had significant influence on police staffing, funding and administration, although the FBI is largely a passive agent in the process. Virtually all police agencies now track their own data, but are only able to compare that data to other political subdivisions by using the UCRs.

The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin was begun in 1932 and is likely the most widely read publication among police. As with other FBI activities, it owes this largely to the fact that it has long been distributed widely to police agencies and officials at no cost to the recipient. Although the journal makes no pretense of being a scholarly journal, it provides readers with articles on law and police and investigative procedures. Articles are practical and applicable to daily police activities, thus likely to be read by working police officers.

Not all FBI influence on police results from the activities of FBI Headquarters. In the years since Hoover’s death, the FBI has greatly increased its cooperative interactions with other law enforcement agencies. A variety of FBI task forces and fusion centers operate with FBI Special Agents and analysts working jointly with state or local police on investigations and information analysis. These task forces focus on areas such as violent gangs, computer crime, terrorism and organized crime and are often housed in a location away from the FBI office. Task forces allow the FBI to capitalize on the much wider coverage of a community enjoyed by police, who remain in one location and are far more numerous than FBI Special Agents. They also allow the FBI to largely shape the mission by providing resources and expertise not available to many police agencies. By working side by side with police officers, Special Agents build personal relationships which reduce the potential for police developing suspicion or resentment of the FBI. Although these joint operations have been widely welcomed by many police agencies, frictions have developed in some instances, particularly around the joint terrorism task forces (Levitt; Parascondola; Portland on Line; Yardley).

A final area in which the FBI has significantly influenced police is in the area of organized crime investigation. Until the late 1950s, the official position of the FBI was that the Mafia did not exist (Gentry; Sullivan). However, public disclosures of a disrupted 1957 conference of crime bosses in Apalachin, New York and the later testimony of former Mafia soldier Joseph Valachi resulted in a reversal of that position and the initiation of a major effort at investigating organized crime (Gentry). A combination of expanded federal statutes, significant resources and innovative investigative techniques has allowed the FBI to significantly disrupt organized crime, particularly in New York (Freeh). Only the FBI has the resources, jurisdiction and Justice Department support to pursue many of these cases. They have therefore had substantial influence over the investigation and prosecution of organized crime.

Thus the FBI has had a continuing influence on state and local policing in the United States, although the mechanisms and nature of influence have evolved over the past 80 years.


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