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Policing - National Crime Spree

police act terrorist liquor

Through the 1920s crime became a national issue for the first time. Prohibition, which banned the sale, manufacture, possession, and transportation of liquor, brought crime syndicates, gangsters, and bootleggers (those who sold liquor illegally) plenty of business. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), first formed in 1862 during the Civil War, had much of the responsibility for tracking bootleggers.


Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, killing some three thousand people, policing in the United States experienced major new challenges. Intelligence gathering gained greater attention and counterterrorism led to much greater cooperation among police organizations of all levels of government.

Police resorted to a range of investigation tools from high tech monitoring devices to consulting with psychologists about the behavior of terrorists. Police found that terrorists were quite different than usual criminals; street criminals often acted on impulse taking advantage of opportunities and were untrained and undisciplined. Terrorists, driven by strong political and religious beliefs, carefully planned their activities, sometimes over long time periods.

In October 2001, just over a month after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Congress passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (more commonly known as the Patriot Act). The act loosened the restrictions on police for obtaining personal information about citizens. People no longer needed to be suspects in a crime for the police to access information about them.

Under the act, the FBI could deliver a letter to a doctor's office or librarian demanding the personal records of a specific individual without a warrant. Warrants could also be obtained for electronic surveillance without naming specific individuals. Warrants had to identify only what area or electronic system was to be tapped. The act was the subject of much debate. It spelled out that the greatest challenge for police was to prevent future terrorist attacks while protecting the civil liberties of its citizens.

The U.S. Customs Service was in charge of guarding the nation's borders to keep smugglers from bringing liquor (and Policing was revolutionized with the widespread use of police cars and two-way radios. (© H. Armstrong Roberts/Corbis)
later drugs) into the country illegally. Even the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) went after criminals—by charging them with tax evasion (not paying taxes). After other law enforcement agencies tried and failed numerous times to convict notorious gangster Al Capone (1899–1947) of various crimes, the IRS nailed him for tax evasion and sent him to prison.

Still, crime was out of control. In 1929 President Herbert C. Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33) appointed U.S. attorney general George Wickersham (1858–1936) to head a national commission to study crime and punishment in the nation. The commission produced fourteen volumes by 1931. The volumes addressed various issues related to policing, including police corruption and the use of too much force, which lead to violence against suspects. Much of the policing sections was written by Los Angeles police chief August Vollmer (1876–1955).

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