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Federal Bureau of Investigation: History

Before The Beginning Of The F.b.i.

At the time of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, there was not a need or a desire for an elaborate system of policing in the United States. At this time, with few federal laws, the policing function was almost exclusively a responsibility of local government. Policing communities was quite informal, consisting most often of volunteers assigned to the "watch" who would guard the village or town at night, and, later on, during the day. Local control of the police function was a desirable feature of American policing because, ideally, it allowed residents to have input into how policing was conducted in their community. The desire for local control also helped explain why the framers of the Constitution were resistant to the idea of an all-powerful national police force.

The enforcement of the few federal laws that were in existence at this time was the responsibility of a small corps of federal agents and marshals. Again, there was no need or desire for a specialized mechanism to conduct criminal investigations at the federal level.

It was not until the mid 1800s that formal municipal police departments were created and these institutions were primarily located in the large and rapidly growing cities of the eastern United States (e.g., Boston, Philadelphia, New York). Municipal police detectives, those with primary responsibility for criminal identification and apprehension, did not appear until the late 1800s, and this development occurred largely in response to public concern about increasing crime.

In the mid-to late 1800s, the Justice Department, having no investigators of its own, borrowed agents from other federal offices to assist in investigative matters and also used agents from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a private investigative agency. Pinkerton had investigative and operational advantages over governmental agents; namely, the agency operated without concern for cumbersome political jurisdictional lines, it had a well-developed system of internal communication and record-keeping, and it had a system in place to share information with the investigative services of foreign nations.

In the early 1900s, an increase in urbanization and crime along with technological changes (namely, the automobile) placed extraordinary demands on the police. With a more mobile population and jurisdictional lines more easily crossed, the need for state and federal law enforcement agencies became apparent.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawFederal Bureau of Investigation: History - Before The Beginning Of The F.b.i., The Beginning Of The F.b.i.