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Federal Criminal Law Enforcement

Determining The Federal Role

A second challenge facing federal law enforcement agencies is devising a role that addresses national enforcement priorities but still reflects their own special capabilities (and limitations). As political pressure has propelled federal agencies to target violent crime, such a balance has become increasingly difficult to strike. A drive-by shooting may be precisely the sort of crime that the police are best able to address and that they should be held responsible for addressing. But the shooting may be part of a broader pattern of racketeering by a well-structured gang that funds itself with interstate drug trafficking and gets its weapons from out of state. Such an enterprise would be a fitting target for a federal agency that is undeterred by state boundaries and that, lacking broad patrol obligations, can strategically invest its resources in high-impact cases.

As this scenario suggests, a key to the efficient allocation of scarce federal resources will often be coordination with state and local police, particularly in the sharing of information. This in itself will often require striking a difficult balance, because all law enforcement agencies are traditionally protective of their investigative data, and because federal enforcers may also find themselves investigating police corruption or civil rights violations. But no federal agency or agencies can ever hope to duplicate the informational networks available only to a force with broad patrol responsibilities. To promote effective coordination, federal agencies have, here too, turned to the task force model, working with state and local units to target specific criminal organizations or specific types of criminal activity, like narcotics trafficking, terrorism, or bank robberies. Federal agencies have also cultivated the goodwill of state and local authorities by providing access to federal funds and equipment, and by assisting them in the interstate aspects of those authorities' own investigations.

Occasionally, state or local enforcers will complain of intrusions by federal agencies into areas of traditional local concern. Given the degree of statutory overlap between the state and federal systems, however, what is remarkable is not the occurrence of such disputes but their relative infrequency. Spurred by their own needs, and sometimes by political pressure from congressional delegations protecting local interests, federal enforcers have generally developed close working relationships with state and local authorities.

As federal enforcement agencies operate in the twenty-first century, they will increasingly find themselves facing similar coordination issues arising out of their efforts to combat criminal activity that crosses national boundaries. At least for now, state and local authorities are rarely equipped to investigate and prosecute, for example, a fraud on an American bank perpetrated by a foreign national sitting at a computer thousands of miles away. The task will thus fall to federal enforcers, who will not be able to proceed without assistance from foreign authorities, and who therefore must develop cost and information sharing arrangements that will encourage such cooperation.

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