Police Life

The History of the FBI – The United States needs an Investigative Force

At the start of the 20th century, The United States of America had grown significantly. The country’s wealth was extensive, as a result of industrialisation, and it was now considered to be a world power. Within its boundaries, however, the expansion had led to an increase in crime and an inability to control it. Most cities had their own police force, but the desire for political power resulted in high amounts of corruption in law enforcement. This meant that police officers were appointed for political reasons, underpaid and poorly trained. The number of federal laws that had been passed were few, and existing federal agencies, such as The Secret Service, were thinly staffed and could not conduct investigations efficiently.

Image: Lima Junior / Shutterstock.com

Increasing technology, such as Henry Ford’s Model T, was also helping criminals become more efficient. When automobiles became widespread, they were used as a method of getting away and most criminals could not be brought to justice. In addition to the crimes within the country, the threat of war meant a need for protection against sabotage and espionage, making national security a top priority. Anarchists presented a rising problem, preaching against the government and suggesting rebellion to ‘give the people back their power.’ These teachings resulted in the assassination of several political leaders, including President McKinley, in 1901.

After the president’s death, Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt took over the oval office. As a former Civil Service Commissioner in Washington, and Head of the New York Police Department for two years, Roosevelt believed in upholding the law at all times. An advocate of the rising ‘Progressive Movement,’ the president appointed another reformer, Charles Bonaparte, as his second Attorney General, in 1906. Bonaparte was shocked to discover that even as the top lawman in the nation, he had no trained investigators at his disposal. He often had to ‘rent’ them from the Secret Service, after which they would report to their agency’s Chief. Bonaparte reported the situation to Congress, which banned the borrowing of any Secret Service operatives to federal employees in 1908. This led to Bonaparte, with Roosevelt’s full support, forming his own investigative force.

By June of the same year, Bonaparte had discreetly hired nine Secret Service investigators that he had worked with before. Along with 25 other employees, he used them to create an agency with the mission of conducting investigations for the Department of Justice. On July 26, 1908, when they were handed their instructions, the FBI was officially formed under the approval of Congress. Bonaparte personally monitored the new force for the first seven months after its inception, before stepping down when President Roosevelt retired in March 1909. The agency was named by his succeeder, George W. Wickersham, as The Bureau of Investigation, which it remained for many years.

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