Do we really want a British FBI? UWE Bristol researcher thinks we need to learn from history

Issue date: 03 December 2012

In an article posted on the History and Policy today website, Dr Michael Woodiwiss, a historian from the University of the West of England, argues that our government needs to observe lessons from history before pushing ahead with a British FBI.

In his speech to the Centre for Social Justice on 22 October the Prime Minister David Cameron called for a tough but intelligent approach to crime mentioning how a National Crime Agency or 'British FBI' will underpin its ambition to combat organised crime.

Michael Woodiwiss is not so sure that we should pin too much hope on emulating the FBI model, “The proposal to establish the NCA was unveiled in the Queen's Speech in May 2012, and legislation is now on its way through Parliament, with the new agency set to become operational in 2013.

“I believe that we need to be wary of the assumption that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has successfully confronted organised crime in the U.S. and therefore provides a model for other nations to follow. An 'intelligent' approach to organised crime requires a more critical engagement with the past and, in particular, the assumption that improved FBI-style enforcement should be the main response to organised crime.”

Woodiwiss argues that the FBI began its confrontation with the 'organised forces of crime' in earnest in the 1930s, as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal anti-crime drive. Under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, its agents were armed and made familiar with the most up-to-date, scientific techniques of crime detection. Thus equipped, they were able to track, shoot down or bring to justice criminals such as bank robber John Dillinger.

The repeal of the Prohibition Amendment virtually ended a significant source of bootlegging income for organised criminals and allowed valuable policing resources to be directed more productively. Additionally support for laws and policies that transformed and cleaned up the energy, banking and finance sectors of the American economy were positive measures.

Michael Woodiwiss continues, “This combination of 'tough but intelligent' measures were popular during the Depression years and by the end of the New Deal in the late 1930s, this new habitat made organising crime more difficult and risky. Unfortunately for Americans this was the last period in organised crime control history that can be called both tough and intelligent.”

In his article he cites, 'Although the policing and prosecution of organised crime in America has improved dramatically, especially since the 1970 Organized Crime Control Act, the governance of organised crime has deteriorated almost to the point of collapse as politicians and high level government officials have undermined these efforts.

'The deterioration began with the onset of the Cold War with the US government committing resources to achieving national security and preserving 'free' enterprise. During the 1950s and '60s, more time was devoted to the collection of mainly useless information about celebrities, politicians and tens of thousands of mostly innocent ordinary Americans, wrongly identified as possible security threats. J. Edgar Hoover was not, however, solely responsible for the failure to control organised crime, as several writers have claimed.

'After the end of alcohol prohibition, organised crime was most associated with markets created by the laws that attempted to prohibit gambling and drugs. No agency, nor combination of agencies, no matter how well resourced and trained, could come close to controlling the tidal waves of illegal market activity these laws created.

'A decade after Hoover's death in 1972, the policing and prosecution of notable organised crime figures did begin to impress. However, the FBI's achievements in helping to put the likes of New York mobsters 'Fat Tony' Salerno and Tony 'Ducks' Corallobehind bars pale into insignificance in the context of three longer term developments.

Firstly, the poorly thought-through processes of deregulation and privatisation that removed many New Deal checks and balances on business activity, helped create a host of opportunities for successful fraud, tax evasion and other organised white-collar criminality.

Secondly, there was the development of a massively expanding illegal market in drugs, accompanied by levels of violence far in excess of those witnessed during alcohol prohibition.

Thirdly, this second development has led to a series of political 'wars' on crime and drugs since the 1970s that resulted in the FBI and almost 17,000 other law enforcement agencies filling the US prison system to unprecedented levels.

The incarceration of millions of mainly poor Americans would have shocked New Dealers, who mostly understood that high rates of incarceration were not only morally indefensible but also counter-productive, as prison trains and networks more criminals than it deters or rehabilitates.

American prison gangs today operate on the outside as well as on the inside, and make a significant contribution to America's exceptionally violent and corrupt organised crime problem. British policy makers should seek to avoid rather than emulate these trends.

Woodiwiss concludes, “If British politicians and commentators made themselves aware of some of the inconvenient realities of American organised crime history, they might be less inclined to frame domestic policy responses in its image, and better able to serve and inform the public. Sadly, the Prime Minister's reference to a 'British FBI' suggests that the myth of the all-powerful FBI as the epitome of crime-fighting prowess continues to hold sway over British policymakers, as it has done since the 1980s.”


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