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Federal Criminal Law Enforcement

Coordination Challenges

When two or more units have overlapping spheres of responsibility, competition between them can spur each to greater innovation and superior performance. That at least is the lesson of market theory. And there is some validity to the theory, when applied to the federal enforcement establishment, where competition among agencies can enhance performance and group esprit, and can ensure that no one agency controls policymaking in a particular operational sphere. If necessary, one agency can even be used to investigate alleged misconduct by another.

With these benefits can come severe disadvantages, however. Competition between agencies can be wasteful if each strives simply to look better in the appropriations process. The failure to share information can seriously impede the prosecution of complex criminal activity that is not fully understood by any one agency. And the loss can be even greater if, in the absence of coordination, one agency actually disrupts the operations of another by, say, targeting someone who is an active informant for another agency. One of the critical challenges facing the federal enforcement establishment is thus to keep the benefits of fragmentation while minimizing its costs.

Some efforts to coordinate enforcement activity occur in Washington, through personal and institutionalized relationships between agency leaders and their political superiors. Other efforts occur in the field, through interagency contacts and, increasingly, through the establishment of task forces. Between 1966 and 1990, organized crime "strike forces" were established in fourteen major cities. These units—comprised of representatives of eleven investigative agencies at one point—and prosecutors reporting to the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section in Washington targeted "traditional" organized crime (La Cosa Nostra) as well as some nontraditional criminal enterprises. Although Attorney General Richard Thornburgh merged the strike forces into the local U.S. attorneys' offices in 1990, in order to end occasional turf battles between prosecutors reporting to Washington and those reporting to U.S. attorneys, these units continue to operate within the new framework. In 1982 the task force model was extended to the narcotics area with the establishment of thirteen regional units, the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces. These units, formed to target high-level trafficking, include personnel from the DEA, F.B.I., IRS, INS, U.S. Marshals, Customs Service, and Coast Guard.

Another way in which interagency coordination is promoted in the field is through the actions of the U.S. attorneys' offices. Although federal agents sometimes seek legal support—for example, search warrant applications—from state and local prosecuting offices, and those offices will sometimes seek indictments in cases that have been investigated by federal agents, federal agents will generally go the local U.S. attorney's office first for search warrants, grand jury subpoenas, electronic surveillance applications, and other such legal assistance, as well as for indictments. A U.S. attorney's office will therefore find itself at the center of most federal enforcement activity in its district, and can ensure, at the very least, that two different agencies are not on a collision course. It may even be able to promote affirmative cooperation. Within the Justice Department, only the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General have hierarchical authority over federal enforcement agencies, and, as noted, many federal enforcement agencies are not even housed with the Justice Department. Nonetheless, a U.S. attorney's office's status as gatekeeper to the federal courts—since agencies cannot prosecute cases without it—gives it considerable influence on agency operations within its jurisdiction.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawFederal Criminal Law Enforcement - Structural Characteristics, Sources Of Structural Fragmentation: History And Politics, Coordination Challenges, Determining The Federal Role