The National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement’s Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement

Today’s post is by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Introduction

In 1929, President Hoover established a commission to undertake the first comprehensive national study of crime, the American criminal justice system, and law enforcement in the United States. This commission in the two years that followed would issue a series of 14 reports addressing the myriad of issues and problems relating to its mandate. This blog post is about that commission and its reports, particularly the one relating to “lawless in law enforcement,” which became the first systematic investigation of police misconduct and became a catalyst for reforms involving new forms of accountability for the police.

There was a dramatic increase in crime in the United States during the first half of the 1920s. [1] In part this can be attributed to crimes associated with the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors. In the wake of the Volstead Act (effective January 1920), providing for the enforcement of the Amendment, there was a rapid growth of organized crime in the form of the large large-scale smuggling, manufacture, and sale of alcoholic beverages. [2] The open and well-publicized violence and lawlessness involved inspired a widely held belief that the nation was undergoing a crime wave. The public was aroused by the situation and efforts were made at the local, state, and national levels to address the crime problem, including questions involving law enforcement. Many states created commissions to address the many problems associated with crimes and law enforcement.[3]

At the national level, during the latter half of 1925, President Calvin Coolidge created a National Crime Commission to address crime issues, including what steps could be taken to reduce crime

Among the members of the executive committee of the commission were Franklin D. Roosevelt, Justice Charles Evans Hughes, and Newton D. Baker. Not much was expected from the commission, based on the belief that its membership did not have much experience with law enforcement. The results of the commission, as expected, were inconsequential.[4]


The Commission Created

Herbert Hoover, who became president in March 1929, was beset by many problems, including those associated with the enforcement of the prohibition law and with crimes issues. He turned his attention to these problems the moment he took office as President. One of the first things Hoover addressed in his March 4, 1929, inauguration address was the issue of crime. He said:

“The most malign of all these dangers today is disregard and disobedience of law. Crime is increasing. Confidence in rigid and speedy justice is decreasing. I am not prepared to believe that this indicates any decay in the moral fibre of the American people. I am not prepared to believe that it indicates an impotence of the Federal Government to enforce its laws.
It is only in part due to the additional burdens imposed upon our judicial system by the 18th amendment. The problem is much wider than that. Many influences had increasingly complicated and weakened our law enforcement organization long before the adoption of the 18th amendment.

To reestablish the vigor and effectiveness of law enforcement we must critically consider the entire Federal machinery of justice, the redistribution of its functions, the simplification of its procedure, the provision of additional special tribunals, the better selection of juries, and the more effective organization of our agencies of investigation and prosecution that justice may be sure and that it may be swift. While the authority of the Federal Government extends to but part of our vast system of national, State, and local justice, yet the standards which the Federal Government establishes have the most profound influence upon the whole structure…”[5]

After discussion of the prohibition issue, Hoover proposed a national investigation to address the issue of crime in general, but also to resolve the debate over continuing Prohibition. He said:

“I propose to appoint a national commission for a searching investigation of the whole structure of our Federal system of jurisprudence, to include the method of enforcement of the 18th amendment and the causes of abuse under it. Its purpose will be to make such recommendations for reorganization of the administration of Federal laws and court procedure as may be found desirable. In the meantime it is essential that a large part of the enforcement activities be transferred from the Treasury Department to the Department of Justice as a beginning of more
effective organization.”[6]

The next day, March 5, at his first press conference, Hoover said “One other question relates to the time I shall appoint the commission that I mentioned yesterday. I notice it is referred to as a prohibition matter. It is not. It is a question of the whole problem of law enforcement. I shall confer with the new Attorney General at an early date as to the constitution of that body.”[7] 

Hoover moved quickly to establish the commission. The National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (also known unofficially as the Wickersham Commission) was established on May 20, 1929 by Hoover under the chairmanship of former attorney general George W. Wickersham, pursuant to the Supplemental Appropriation Act (45 Stat. 1613), March 4, 1929. Wickersham chaired the 11-member group, which was charged with surveying the U.S. criminal justice system under Prohibition and making recommendations for public policy.

Commission members included former Secretary of War Newton D. Baker; Roscoe Pound, Dean of the Harvard Law School; Ada Comstock, a sociologist and president of Radcliffe College; and, Frank J. Loesch, a prominent Chicago attorney and leader of the Chicago Crime Commission, who had led the fight to prosecute Al Capone.

At the White House during the afternoon of May 28, 1929, at the first meeting of the commission, President Hoover said:

“I propose no extensive address in inducting this Commission formally into its duties. Its members have large understanding and long service in the field whose problems it is assembled to study and consider. I have already expressed my views publicly upon its purpose and its necessity.


The American people are deeply concerned over the alarming disobedience of law, the abuses in law enforcement, and the growth of organized crime, which has spread in every field of evil-doing and in every part of our country. A nation does not fail from its growth of wealth or power. But no nation can for long survive the failure of its citizens to respect and obey the laws which they themselves make. Nor can it survive a decadence of the moral and spiritual concepts that are the basis of respect for law nor from neglect to organize itself to defeat crime and the corruption that flows from it. Nor is this a problem confined to the enforcement and obedience of one law or the laws of the Federal or State Governments separately. The problem is partly the attitude toward all law.


It is my hope that the Commission shall secure an accurate determination of fact and cause, following them with constructive, courageous conclusions which will bring public understanding and command public support of its solutions. The general public approval of the necessity for the creation of this Commission and the extraordinary universality of approval of its membership are in themselves evidences of the responsibility that lies upon you and of the great public concern in your task and of the hopes that you may succeed. I do pray for the success of your endeavors, for by such success you will have performed one of the greatest services to our generation.”[8]

The Commission’s substantive meetings got underway in June 1929. The research agenda was clarified, data collection and dissemination strategies were developed, and the division of labor was allocated. [9]     

Once functioning, each of the commissioners headed a committee that investigated separate aspects of the commission’s mandate. To assist in the work of the commission, it hired numerous advisers and consultants. They constituted a virtual who’s who of pre- and post-1930s behavioral and social sciences, criminology, the law, and practitioners from specializations throughout criminal justice organizations nationwide. Among them were Sheldon Glueck, Felix Frankfurter, Raymond Moley, and Charles E. Merriam. The commissioners also hired a research staff to interview police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, social workers, probation officers, prison administrators, and others involved in the criminal justice system.[10]

The Work of the Commission

During its relatively short existence the commission conducted the first comprehensive national study of crime, the American criminal justice system, and law enforcement in the United States.[11]

The Commission in 1930 and 1931 published its findings in 14 reports (in 15 volumes), covering every aspect of the criminal justice system, including the causes of crime, police and prosecutorial procedures, and the importance of probation and parole. They were: no. 1. Report on the enforcement of the prohibition laws of the United States; no. 2. Enforcement of the prohibition laws of the United States; no. 3. Report on criminal statistics; no. 4. Report on prosecution; no. 5. Report on the enforcement of deportation laws of the United States; no. 6. Report on the child offender in the federal system of justice; no. 7. Progress report on the study of the federal courts; no. 8. Report on criminal procedure; no. 9. Report on penal institutions, probation and parole; no. 10. Report on crime and the foreign born; no. 11. Report on lawlessness in law enforcement; no. 12. Report on the cost of crime; no. 13. Report on the causes of crime (2 v.); and, no. 14. Report on police.[12] 

Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement

Besides the first report, that relating to prohibition, the most significant report was that on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement. It was the first systematic investigation of abusive police tactics and misconduct. It was authored by three consultants: Harvard University law professor Zechariah Chafee, Jr., and the law partners Walter H. Pollak and Carl S. Stern of the New York firm of Engelhard, Pollak, Pitcher & Stern.All three were closely identified with civil liberties issues.[13]

The 347-page Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement focused on “The Third Degree” regarding police abuses, and “Unfairness in Prosecution.” The report constituted an indictment of the police misconductthe commission had found throughout the country. The report claimed in blunt and provocative language that police at the time regularly used physical brutality and cruelty during interrogations to obtain involuntary confession or admissions—something the authors of the report referred to as the “third degree.” The authors found that police agencies across the country utilized “third degree” tactics. Police used physical brutality, threats, and illegal detentions to elicit confessions. They denied suspects the right to a lawyer during interrogations. They held suspects incommunicado for long periods of time in hopes of extorting a confession and they delayed in producing a prisoner before a magistrate. In addition the report revealed corruption in many cities’ criminal justice systems and documented instances of bribery, entrapment, coercion of witnesses, fabrication of evidence, and illegal wiretapping. [14]

The existence of the third degree was well known among local criminal justice officials, and at least some other members of the general public, but the Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement was the first time an authoritative government body had ever recognized and condemned it in print, with thorough documentation, gathered through field research and a national review of relevant court cases.[15]

The report did not generally address possible remedies to the problems discussed. The report concluded that law cannot really solve the problem of lawlessness and that the solution ultimately depends on the will of the community. This, according to one scholar, in effect, represents a good government or concerned citizen approach to the problem.[16] The report did, however, recommended some significant changes in criminal procedure. The recommendations included establishing legal representation for defendants “in all cases,” requiring the prosecution to provide the defense with a list of its witnesses, eliminating race discrimination in jury lists, and, simplifying and clarifying the law on the admissibility of evidence.[17]

The End of the Commission

The Commission began wrapping up its business during May and June 1931 and its Washington, D.C. office closed in August 1931.[18]Subsequently well over one hundred cubic feet of records of the commission were accessioned by the National Archives. They are to be found within Record Group 10, Records of the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. Record copies of publications of the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement are located within Record Group 287, Publications of the U.S. Government.

The series of records of the Committee on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, will be of interest to scholars specializing in a wide variety of subjects, including the history of law enforcement, criminal justice, and criminal procedure, as well as urban history, labor history, American race relations, and the administration of President Herbert Hoover.[19]

Legacy of the Commission and the Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement

By the time the commission published its reports, the United States was in the second year of the Great Depression. The president and the Congress were preoccupied with the problem of economic recovery and had little time and energy for the reform of the administration of justice.[20] Thus the reports did not have an immediate impact on the law enforcement problems, though over time they were cited as foundational guideposts in several later federal and state studies, policy initiatives, and agency changes.[21]

The one report that did have influence on public policy was that on lawlessness in law enforcement. It put the problem of police misconduct on the national agenda; became a point of reference for civic activists, academics, and reform-minded police chiefs in the decades ahead, and served as a catalyst for the police reform movement that took place in many municipalities during the 1930s.[22]    


[1] Esther Conner, “Crime Commissions and Criminal Procedure in the United States Since 1920–A Bibliography– January 1920-June 1927,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Spring 1930), p. 129;

Jeffrey S. Adler, “Less Crime, More Punishment: Violence, Race, and Criminal Justice in Early Twentieth-Century America, The Journal of American History (June 2015), pp. 36, 39

[2] Samuel Walker, intro., Records of the Wickersham Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, Part 1: Records of the Committee on Official Lawlessness (Bethesda, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1997), p. vi; Gregory Marose, “Prohibition and the Rise of the American Gangster,” Pieces of History, January 17, 2012, https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2012/01/17/prohibition-and-the-rise-of-the-american-gangster/; Federal Bureau of Investigation, “The FBI and the American Gangster, 1924-1938,” https://www.fbi.gov/history/brief-history/the-fbi-and-the-american-gangster

[3] Samuel Walker, intro., Records of the Wickersham Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, Part 1: Records of the Committee on Official Lawlessness (Bethesda, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1997), p. vi.

[4] John H. Wigmore, “The National Crime Commission: What Will It Achieve?” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 16, No. 3 (November 1925), pp. 312-315; Thomas E. Cronin, Tania Z. Cronin, and Michael E. Milakovich, U.S. V. Crime in the Streets, (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University 1981), pp. 27-28.

[5] Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Herbert Hoover, March 4 to December 31, 1929 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1974), p. 2.

[6] Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Herbert Hoover, March 4 to December 31, 1929 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1974), p. 4.

[7] Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Herbert Hoover, March 4 to December 31, 1929 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1974), p. 13.

[8] Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Herbert Hoover, March 4 to December 31, 1929 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1974), pp. 159-160.

[9] James D. Calder, “Between Brain and State: Herbert C. Hoover, George W. Wickersham, and the Commission That Grounded Social Scientific Investigations of American Crime and Justice, 1929–1931 and Beyond,” Marquette Law Review, Volume 96, Issue 4 (2013), pp. 1059, 1060.

[10] James D. Calder, “Between Brain and State: Herbert C. Hoover, George W. Wickersham, and the Commission That Grounded Social Scientific Investigations of American Crime and Justice, 1929–1931 and Beyond,” Marquette Law Review, Volume 96, Issue 4 (2013), p. 1057.

[11] Samuel Walker, intro., Records of the Wickersham Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, Part 1: Records of the Committee on Official Lawlessness (Bethesda, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1997), p. v.

[12] U.S. Wickersham Commission reports / U.S. National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office], 1930-1931). A summary of each of the reports can be found at James D. Calder, “Between Brain and State: Herbert C. Hoover, George W. Wickersham, and the Commission That Grounded Social Scientific Investigations of American Crime and Justice, 1929–1931 and Beyond,” Marquette Law Review, Volume 96, Issue 4 (2013), pp. 1067-1085.

[13] James D. Calder, “Between Brain and State: Herbert C. Hoover, George W. Wickersham, and the Commission That Grounded Social Scientific Investigations of American Crime and Justice, 1929–1931 and Beyond,” Marquette Law Review, Volume 96, Issue 4 (2013), p. 1086; Samuel Walker, intro., Records of the Wickersham Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, Part 1: Records of the Committee on Official Lawlessness (Bethesda, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1997), p. ix.

[14] James D. Calder, “Between Brain and State: Herbert C. Hoover, George W. Wickersham, and the Commission That Grounded Social Scientific Investigations of American Crime and Justice, 1929–1931 and Beyond,” Marquette Law Review, Volume 96, Issue 4 (2013), p. 1086.

[15] Samuel Walker, “The Engineer as Progressive: The Wickersham Commission in the Arc of Herbert Hoover’s Life and Work,” Marquette Law Review, Volume 96, Issue 4 (2013), p. 1181.

[16] Samuel Walker, intro., Records of the Wickersham Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, Part 1: Records of the Committee on Official Lawlessness (Bethesda, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1997), p. x.

[17] Samuel Walker, “The Engineer as Progressive: The Wickersham Commission in the Arc of Herbert Hoover’s Life and Work,” Marquette Law Review, Volume 96, Issue 4 (2013), p. 1185.

[18] James D. Calder, “Between Brain and State: Herbert C. Hoover, George W. Wickersham, and the Commission That Grounded Social Scientific Investigations of American Crime and Justice, 1929–1931 and Beyond,” Marquette Law Review, Volume 96, Issue 4 (2013), pp. 1066, 1087.

[19] Samuel Walker, intro., Records of the Wickersham Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, Part 1: Records of the Committee on Official Lawlessness (Bethesda, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1997), p. v.

[20] Samuel Walker, intro., Records of the Wickersham Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, Part 1: Records of the Committee on Official Lawlessness (Bethesda, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1997), p. vii.

[21] James D. Calder, “Between Brain and State: Herbert C. Hoover, George W. Wickersham, and the Commission That Grounded Social Scientific Investigations of American Crime and Justice, 1929–1931 and Beyond,” Marquette Law Review, Volume 96, Issue 4 (2013), pp. 1035-1036.

[22] Samuel Walker, “The Engineer as Progressive: The Wickersham Commission in the Arc of Herbert Hoover’s Life and Work,” Marquette Law Review, Volume 96, Issue 4 (2013), p. 1185; Samuel Walker, intro., Records of the Wickersham Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, Part 1: Records of the Committee on Official Lawlessness (Bethesda, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1997), pp. v, vii, x.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *