THE "LAWLESS" YEARS
The years from 1921 to 1933 beverages. Prohibition created a
new federal medium for fighting crime. But the Department of the Treasury,
not the Department of Justice, had jurisdiction for these violations.
Attacking crimes that were federal in scope but local in jurisdiction called
for creative solutions. The Bureau of Investigation had limited success
using its narrow jurisdiction to investigate some of the criminals of "the
gangster era." For example, it investigated Al Capone as a "fugitive federal
witness." Federal investigation of a resurgent white supremacy movement also
required creativity. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), dormant since the late 1800s,
was revived in part to counteract the economic gains made by African
Americans during World War I. The Bureau of Investigation used the Mann Act
to bring Louisiana's philandering KKK "Imperial Kleagle" to justice.
Through these investigations and through more traditional investigations of
nuetrality violations and antitrust violations, the Bureau of Investigation
gained stature. Although the Harding Administration suffered from
unqualified and sometimes corrupt officials, the Progressive Era reform
tradition continued among the professional Department of Justice Special
Agents. The new Bureau of Investigation Director, William J. Burns, who had
previously run his own detective agency, appointed 26-year-old J. Edgar
Hoover as Assistant Director. Hoover, a graduate of George Washington
University Law School, had worked for the Department of Justice since 1917,
where he headed the enemy alien operations during World War I and assisted
in the General Intelligence Division under Attorney General A. Mitchell
Palmer, investigating suspected anarchists and communists.
After Harding died in 1923, his successor, Calvin Coolidge, appointed
replacements for Harding's cronies in the Cabinet. For the new Attorney
General, Coolidge appointed attorney Harlan Fiske Stone. Stone then, on May
10, 1924, selected Hoover to head the Bureau of Investigation. By
inclination and training, Hoover embodied the Progressive tradition. His
appointment ensured that the Bureau of Investigation would keep that
When Hoover took over, the Bureau of Investigation had approximately 650
employees, including 441 Special Agents. He immediately fired those Agents
he considered unqualified and proceeded to professionalize the organization.
For example, Hoover abolished the seniority rule of promotion and introduced
uniform performance appraisals. Regular inspections of Headquarters and
field office operations were scheduled. New Agents had to be between 25 and
35 years old. Then, in January 1928, Hoover established a formal training
course for new Agents. He also returned to the earlier preference for
Special Agents with law or accounting experience.
The new Director was also keenly aware that the Bureau of Investigation
could not fight crime without public support. In remarks prepared for the
Attorney General in 1925, he wrote, "The Agents of the Bureau of
Investigation have been impressed with the fact that the real problem of law
enforcement is in trying to obtain the cooperation and sympathy of the
public and that they cannot hope to get such cooperation until they
themselves merit the respect of the public."
Also in the early days of Hoover's directorship, a long held goal of
American law enforcement was achieved: the establishment of an
Identification Division. Tracking criminals by means of identification
records had been considered a crucial tool of law enforcement since the 19th
century, and matching fingerprints was considered the most accurate method.
By 1922, many large cities had started their own fingerprint collections.
In keeping with the Progressive Era tradition of federal assistance to
localities, the Department of Justice created a Bureau of Criminal
Identification in 1905 in order to provide a centralized reference
collection of fingerprint cards. In 1907, the collection was moved, as a
money-saving measure, to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where it was
staffed by convicts. Understandably suspicious of this arrangement, police
departments formed their own centralized identification bureau maintained by
the International Association of Chiefs of Police. It refused to share its
data with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. In 1924, Congress was
persuaded to merge the two collections in Washington, D.C., under Bureau of
Investigation administration. As a result, law enforcement agencies across
the country began contributing fingerprint cards to the Bureau of
Investigation by 1926.
By the end of the decade, Special Agent training was institutionalized, the
field office inspection system was solidly in place, and the Identification
Division was functioning. In addition, studies were underway that would lead
to the creation of the Technical Laboratory and Uniform Crime Reports. The
Bureau was equipped to end the "lawless years."
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