Section 2.2: Federal Law Enforcement

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

A federal law enforcement agency is an organizational unit, or subunit, of the federal government with the principal functions of prevention, detection, and investigation of crime and the apprehension of alleged offenders.  Examples of federal law enforcement agencies include the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Secret Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).  

For much of the history of the United States, it was a widely accepted premise that the Constitution gave the federal government no authority over “ordinary” crimes.  The common interpretation of the Tenth Amendment suggested that the power and responsibility to enforce criminal laws rested with state and local governments. Since the early nineteenth century, however, federal lawmakers have continually increased the law enforcement powers of the federal government.

A few federal agencies sprang up at the nation’s founding, including the U.S. Marshals Service and the Revenue Cutter Service (predecessor of today’s Customs and Border Protection), while other federal agencies were established in the 1800s, including the Secret Service.  This was the extent of federal law enforcement for many years. In general, Americans have long distrusted government power and authority. When they reluctantly saw the need to create police institutions to help control crime and disorder, they preferred to retain local control over those institutions, hence the proliferation of municipal police departments and county sheriff’s offices.

Indicative of this thinking were the two original federal agencies mentioned above—one to control the nation’s borders and the other to provide some law and order on the frontier as the nation expanded westward. Neither of these federal agencies represented much of a threat to ordinary citizens living in established communities and states. Similarly, when the U.S. Secret Service was created in 1865, it was for the distinct purpose of protecting the U.S. currency against counterfeiting—no general investigative powers were granted at first.

Urban areas in the United States had grown enormously by 1908—there were more than 100 such cities with populations over 50,000, a staggering number for the time.  Crime rates soared with this population growth. In these large, metropolitan areas, there were many overcrowded tenements filled with the poor and disillusioned. Ethnic tensions within our increasingly immigrant nation were prevalent, and tempers often flared. Clashes between striking workers and their factory bosses turned increasingly violent.  Officials did not seem to notice at the time, but American crime was becoming more violent and better organized.

Those tasked with fighting crime during this period not always reflect the highest ethical standards.  Corruption was rampant nationwide. This was nowhere more evident than in local politics. Crooked political machines like Tammany Hall flourished. Big business had its share of greed-driven problems.  Conditions in certain plants and factories were inhumane. Illegal monopolies threatening to control entire industries. Technology was fostering massive changes in the way America was policed, but technology changed the crime picture as well.  

The technological revolution was contributing to crime as well. 1908 was the year that Henry Ford’s Model T first began rolling off assembly lines in Motor City (Detroit).  Ford’s innovative mass-production methods made cars affordable to the masses. Automobiles were also attractive to criminals. Criminals could for the first time steal cars and use them to elude authorities.  (It would be some Twenty-two years later before Bonnie and Clyde would meet their end in a bullet-ridden Ford).

In the early nineteenth century, the role of the federal government in law enforcement was very limited.  Counterfeiting of the currency, mail fraud, and smuggling were the major federal concerns for most of the nation’s history.  Despite the growing and evolving nature of crime in America, there was no systematic way of enforcing the law across all law enforcement jurisdictions. Local communities (and even a few states) had their own police forces, but at that time they were stereotypically poorly trained, politically appointed, and poorly paid.

In 1906 President Roosevelt appointed a reformer named Charles Bonaparte as his second Attorney General. Bonaparte met Roosevelt in 1892 when they both spoke at a reform meeting in Baltimore. Roosevelt was himself a reformer and talked with pride about his insistence that Border Patrol applicants pass marksmanship tests, with the most accurate getting the jobs.  Soon after becoming the nation’s “top lawman,” Bonaparte learned that his hands were largely tied in tackling the problems of crime and corruption.

He had very few investigators who answered to him, but those few carried out assignments on his behalf. These included a force of trained accountants who reviewed the financial transactions of the federal courts and some civil rights investigators.  When he needed additional investigators, he was forced to borrow them from the Secret Service. These men were well-trained and dedicated, but they reported not to the Attorney General but to the Chief of the Secret Service. This situation frustrated Bonaparte to no end.  He had little control over his own investigations.

Bonaparte quietly hired nine of the Secret Service investigators he had borrowed before and brought them together with another 25 of his own to form a special agent force. On July 26, 1908, Bonaparte ordered the Department of Justice attorneys to refer most investigative matters to his Chief Examiner, Stanley W. Finch, who would, in turn, assign the case to one of these 34 agents. The mission of the new force was to conduct investigations for the Department of Justice.  That date is regarded by most police scholars as the official birthday of the FBI.

By 1914, that national sentiment was changing (at least among the political elite).  Narcotics and national security were becoming major countrywide concerns, and the growth of federal criminal laws and agents to enforce those laws grew quickly from that time forward.  In that year, Congress passed the Harrison Act, which regulated the importation, manufacture, and distribution of narcotics.  The Internal Revenue section of the Treasury Department was tasked with enforcing the act, and bringing violators to justice.  In 1908, the Attorney General of the United States established the Bureau of Investigation to investigate business crime and corruption.   

Today, the FBI is housed within the United States Department of Justice.  The FBI is rather unique in that it has both law enforcement and national security concerns as part of its mission.  As the FBI’s Mission Statement puts it, they are a “…  national security organization with both intelligence and law enforcement responsibilities…”  The Mission Statement further explains, “The mission of the FBI is to protect and defend the United States against terrorist and foreign intelligence threats, to uphold and enforce the criminal laws of the United States, and to provide leadership and criminal justice services to federal, state, municipal, and international agencies and partners.”  The FBI employs 13,785 special agents and 22,117 support professionals, such as intelligence analysts, language specialists, scientists, information technology specialists, and other professionals (FBI, 2013).

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF)

The ATF has a reputation for dealing with illegal firearms.  Its mission is rather broader in reality. Housed within the United States Department of Justice, the ATF protects American communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products (ATF, 2013).

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)

“The mission of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is to enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States and bring to the criminal and civil justice system of the United States, or any other competent jurisdiction, those organizations and principal members of organizations, involved in the growing, manufacture, or distribution of controlled substances appearing in or destined for illicit traffic in the United States; and to recommend and support non-enforcement programs aimed at reducing the availability of illicit controlled substances on the domestic and international markets” (DEA, 2013).

The U.S. Marshals Service

“The U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) is the nation’s oldest and most versatile federal law enforcement agency.  Federal Marshals have served the country since 1789, oftentimes in unseen but critical ways. The USMS is the enforcement arm of the federal courts, and as such, it is involved in virtually every federal law enforcement initiative.  Presidentially appointed U.S. Marshals to direct the activities of 94 districts — one for each federal judicial district. More than 3,950 Deputy Marshals and Criminal Investigators form the backbone of the agency. Among their many duties, they apprehend more than half of all federal fugitives, protect the federal judiciary, operate the Witness Security Program, transport federal prisoners, conduct body searches, enforce court orders and Attorney General orders involving civil disturbances and acts of terrorism, execute civil and criminal processes, and seize property acquired by criminals through illegal activities.”

The Secret Service

The United States Secret Service began as an agency dedicated to the investigation of crimes related to the Treasury, and then evolved into the United States’ most recognized protection agency.  The Secret Service was a part of the Department of the Treasury until March 1, 2003, when it became a part of the Department of Homeland Security.  “The mission of the United States Secret Service is to safeguard the nation’s financial infrastructure and payment systems to preserve the integrity of the economy, and to protect national leaders, visiting heads of state and government, designated sites and National Special Security Events.”

The Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS)

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is the government agency that oversees lawful immigration to the United States.  “USCIS will secure America’s promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information to our customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship, and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system. The agency is composed of over 19,000 government employees and contractors of USCIS working at 223 offices across the world.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA)

The primary mission of the TSA is to protect travelers and interstate commerce.  TSA uses a risk-based strategy and works closely with transportation, law enforcement, and intelligence communities to set the standard for excellence in transportation security.

Key Terms

References and Further Reading


Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  12/06/2023

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