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A British FBI: a tough but not necessarily intelligent approach to organised crime


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Prime Minister David Cameron has recently called for a 'tough but intelligent' approach to crime. This included a mention of the proposed National Crime Agency, which he described as 'Britain's version of the FBI', as part of an effective response to harmful organised crime activities. 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. Although there has been some commentary on this Americanisation of British law enforcement, from both sides of the political spectrum, 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, has not been challenged in the mainstream media. In fact, 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.

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.

Although Hollywood and other parts of the American media made much of these exploits, they were a relatively small part of Roosevelt's anti-crime drive. Other aspects were more significant. First, was his support for the repeal of the Prohibition Amendment, which virtually ended a significant source of bootlegging income for organised criminals and allowed valuable policing resources to be directed more productively. Second, was his support for laws and policies that transformed and cleaned up the energy, banking and finance sectors of the American economy. This combination of 'tough but intelligent' measures were popular during the Depression years when most informed Americans thought that morality laws were expensive and impossible to enforce, and found unchecked white-collar fraud and criminality unacceptable. 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. 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. The United States government turned away from the kind of social and economic reforms that checked opportunities for successful criminal activity and towards building up a state more committed to achieving national security and preserving 'free' enterprise. During the 1950s and '60s, the FBI, for example, devoted less time and resources to serious crime control and more 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' Corallo behind 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 of 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.

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.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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