20 Critical Moments That Changed the Way We Think About Crime

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries many advancements have been made in law enforcement. Many of these turning points have had positive effects on law enforcement, while some have not performed as advertised and have contributed to problems or created entirely new problems. This is a list of 20 turning points in the history of law enforcement from the 20th and 21st centuries. The list examines the impact of these major moments in law enforcement, and seeks to determine which have had a positive effect, and which have been inadequate or destructive and need to be revisited.

20. Measures Against Insider Trading and White Collar Crime

White collar crime has always been difficult for law enforcement to deal with due to its basis in esoteric practices rather than tangible violence. White collar crime is a label that covers everything from fraud to insider trading. In the early 1990s penalties for insider trading were bumped from 8-10 years to 20+ years. One of the most famous white collar criminals of modern times is Bernie Madoff whose ponzi scheme defrauded investors of billions of dollars. His 150 year sentence is historic in length. ENRON was an entire energy corporation built on fraud and insider trading. Employees manipulated energy, causing the infamous California brownouts and used the manipulation of prices based on their fraud to make money. The fraud of ENRON caused the government to institute new regulations governing the leniency and transparency of accounting procedures used by public corporations.

Bernie Madoff Wikipedia Entry
ENRON Scandal Wikipedia Entry

19. Rise in Cyber Crime and the Development of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

Since the 1980s and the advent of the internet law enforcement agencies have been faced with the unenviable task of keeping up the the rate of developing technologies. One major law driven by emerging technologies is the Digital Millenium Copyright Act which was designed to curtail widespread pirating of music, movies, and software. Technology pioneers continue to raise questions about the effectiveness of modern law enforcement tools and procedures regarding the internet, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation continues to push for the Constitutional understanding of privacy regarding papers and persons to be updated to include emerging technologies in an official way, instead of the very ambiguous treatment of such technologies that is the norm in the modern era. With the popularization of hobbyist home computing in the 1980s which eventually lead to home computers becoming commonplace, many individuals interested in the workings of networks, both the telephone networks and the networking of computers began exploring this world. This led in some cases to widespread network intrusions, some harmless, others not harmless, which eventually gave rise to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The CFAA still governs the modern internet in much the same way as it did in the 1980s. The act was a major leap forward for law enforcement at the time, but has become outdated and its punishments for what are now considered relatively minor offenses have come to be seen as draconian.

Digital Millenium Copyright Act Wikipedia Entry
Computer Fraud and Abuse Act Wikipedia Entry

18. Fight Against Human Trafficking

Recently the issue of human trafficking has been gaining more traction due to a greater understanding of the pervasiveness of the practice in modern times. The realization that slavery is still a very real thing and that many kidnapped boys, girls, women, and men are sold into lives of sexual slavery against their will has created a worldwide outcry for law enforcement agencies to be more pro-active in the fight against human trafficking. Many states are putting together comprehensive plans to target human trafficking rings and the increased concern over this issue is resulting in greater awareness and action.

17. Advent of Social Media

The advent of social media over the past seven years has dramatically changed law enforcement by giving law enforcement personnel another tool to use in investigations. One prominent case involving social media was the rape of a high school aged girl in Steubenville, Ohio. Scenes of the act were captured on camera and ended up providing police with the evidence necessary to arrest and charge the perpetrators. Social Media has also been used both to organize demonstrations, and prosecute individuals that have been involved in riots around the world. Multiple times in Canada and England rioters have been arrested after pictures and video of them were posted to social network websites.

Social Media’s Role in the Steubenville Rape Case
The Multifaceted Role of Social Media in the UK Riots

16. Whistleblower Protection Act

The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 was intended to protect government employees that report agency misconduct. The act has been immensely important to making people of integrity feel secure in coming forward with abuses within government agencies. It is important to note that this act only protects those that come forward and report the misconduct to the “proper” authorities, and does not serve as much protection for employees that go straight to the media as Eric Snowden did. The one true flaw of the act is that it provides the government with many opportunities to shut down allegations in secret without them ever seeing the light of day. However this act has been instrumental in allowing law enforcement agencies to protect potential whistle blowers, making it so that they do not have to fear personal retaliation from those above them in the bureaucracy.

Whistleblower Protection Act

15. The Rise of Private Prisons and the Question of Incentives

This specific turning point is generally regarded as a net negative to the entire criminal justice system. The incentive of a for-profit corporation is profit. For-profit prisons are not incentivised to reform prisoners as prisoners that offend again represent future income. Private prisons have been mired in scandal, including bribing members of the criminal justice field like Judges, to hand down heavy sentences for minor crimes so that their prisons might better be filled. For-profit prisons also look to cut costs by operating with minimal staff, sometimes increasing escapes and violence within the prison due to inadequate supervision. These issues indicate that for profit prisons result in a more dangerous world at worst, and at best, a world where first time offenders are given harsh sentences for minor offenses such as trespassing and shoplifting. Many countries (such as Israel) and some states (Illinois and Louisiana) have banned private prisons due to their negative effects.

14. Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, and the Sex Offender Registry

These laws, and the Sex Offender Registry were designed to limit the ability of pedophiles to locate themselves near unsuspecting families with young children. Nearly all 50 states have adopted some form of this law and the Sex Offender Registry, though there are slight differences in each state. This law allows police to have easy access to a database of sex offenders, all of whom may be investigated in the case of a local child being kidnapped. It is difficult to gauge a law’s effectiveness at preventing crimes however, because prevented crimes cannot realistically be quantified. One of the major issues people have raised with sweeping laws such as Megan’s or Jessica’s laws however, are that not all sex offenders are created equal. There is a perception that the lists consist entirely of pedophiles when in reality, most sex related offenses are for the solicitation of prostitutes. People have even been placed on such registries for public urination. Because the information on the sex offender’s registry does not specify which sex offense the individual is guilty of, but instead often simply accords the offender a number from 1-4 based on the severity of the offense, it can lead to people that have been convicted of the solicitation of a prostitute being branded as a pedophile. While these laws do have their problems and should continue to be honed so as to provide the public with more accurate information, support for these laws is overwhelming and with good reason.

13. Fight Against School Shootings

This crime takes many different forms and policies intended to stymie school shootings have been fragmented and largely ineffective in their goals. The fragmented approach to the prevention of school shootings has lead to many awkward situations including children being suspended for offenses such as playing cops and robbers in the schoolyard, or eating a poptart into the shape of a gun, due to unclear and strict zero tolerance policies. Recently an eighteen year old boy was arrested and has been charged with making terroristic threats, for making a tasteless joke (but joke none-the-less) on facebook. The real tragedy is that despite all of these misguided policies, school shootings still abound and it is clear that the measures that have been taken against them are ineffective. Perhaps intensive research and study of the underlying problems that lead to such tragedies is what is needed, instead of knee jerk policy created more for the appearance of accomplishing something than actually solving the problem.

Poptart Suspension
Justin Carter Arrested for Terroristic Threats

12. The War on Drugs

In 1970 congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act and a new era of prohibition began. Like the previous era of prohibition which targeted alcohol, this prohibition gave rise to a new kind of gangster, the drug cartel. Cartels emerged in a big way after the prohibition of narcotics and other controlled substances in the United States, and between these cartels and the existence of organized crime networks already established but starving since the repeal of prohibition, new life was breathed into these gangs. Drug related crimes are the most common crimes in the United States today, between violence, and incarceration for simple possession of controlled substances, the war on drugs is one of the most costly endeavors in law enforcement history. Despite the billions of dollars spent to curtail drug manufacture and use, the use of controlled substances has only grown since 1970. This is another area of law enforcement that needs to be carefully examined and reformed at the very least.

11. MIRANDA Warning

This protection for individuals placed under arrest and suspect of a crime was codified in law in 1966. The reading of the Miranda warning has become one of the most important aspects of police procedure, intended to make the suspect fully aware of their rights, and their position of being innocent until proven guilty, their right to a lawyer, and their right to remain silent, as well as the implications for their situation if they decide not to remain silent. In 2010 a landmark decision was reached by the Supreme Court in the case Berghuis vs. Thompkins which clarified that a suspect must state that they wish to invoke their Miranda rights and that the protection from self incrimination does not apply if they speak to police before or after invoking the Miranda rights before an attorney is present to advise them.

10. Targeting the Mafia Through Tax Evasion Prosecution

During the prohibition era organized crime became a force to be reckoned with. The Italian Mafia epitomized the ultimate criminal organization. With paramilitary structure and a way of working around and corrupting the law and law enforcement dating back to the early 1800s, traditional law enforcement tactics were ineffective. The mafia left little to no evidence, intimidated witnesses, and bribed judges, law enforcement agents, and politicians. They were untouchable using established law enforcement tactics. The big change came when the Supreme Court ruled that even illegal income must be claimed as income for the Federal Income Tax. All of a sudden they had a way to target major mafia leaders. The most prominent figure convicted of tax evasion was notorious mobster Al Capone. With no witnesses to intimidate, standing before a federal instead of local judge, and arrested by federal instead of local authorities, Capone’s usual methods of intimidation, murder, and extortion were useless, and the tactics for dealing with organized crime changed.

9. Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)

The ever enterprising organized crime organizations were not permanently stymied by the threat of tax evasion charges. They quickly adapted, buying and creating apparently legitimate businesses through which they were able to launder money. With this adaptation, organized crime became harder to hit than ever. One of the most unique situations in history, everybody knew who the big mobsters were, but nobody could prove anything. The rigid structure of the organization, the loyalty of the soldiers to the Capos and Bosses, were unparallelled. Enter RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The purpose of RICO wasn’t ever ambiguous. “Racketeering Activity” was defined in the act as pretty much every single crime for which the Mafia was and is notorious. Just being tied loosely to any racketeering activity more than once would end in a stiff sentence, the ability to indict large numbers of suspected mobsters under the suspicion that they had conspired on racketeering activities with each other allowed prosecutors and investigators to find weaknesses in the organization and exploit them. While RICO hasn’t been the death blow to organized crime criminal justice professionals were hoping for, it has seriously curtailed the ability of criminal organizations to do their business.

8. Witness Protection Program

In 1970 witness protection was included in the Organized Crime Control Act. Witness protection, often combined with immunity deals, allowed lower level members of organized crime to be witnesses against the organization’s leaders, in exchange for a new identity in a new location, protected by the U.S. Marshals. Between the witness protection program and RICO, a strong incentive was created for members of organized crime to avoid long sentences in exchange for a new life.

7. The Failure of Alcohol Prohibition

In 1920 the production and sale of alcoholic beverages containing more than 2.75% alcohol was banned. Motivations of this ban have been attributed to anything from early feminist movements, to religious movements tied to protestant organizations and churches. The pietistic movements supporting prohibition supplied law enforcement and policy makers of the future a 13 year period of study concerning the effectiveness of prohibition. During this time organized crime flourished, and while the amount of alcohol consumed did go down, the alcohol that was being consumed was more highly concentrated, and more dangerous. Every impact of alcohol prohibition was negative. This period in American History has been used to inform lawmakers and law enforcement of the Law of Unintended Consequences ever since.

6. Allegations of NSA Passive Data Collection

In 2006 Americans were made aware that AT&T was routing internet traffic information to the NSA unbeknownst to their customers. The lawsuit was mired in court until the ruling went against AT&T at which point the Attorney General gave retroactive immunity to the Telecom firm. While this case was not highly publicized, it has been given new life due to the recent leaks from NSA contractor Eric Snowden who revealed that the NSA, in addition to monitoring internet traffic, also passively monitors the calls made by customers of every major telecommunications company. Allegations have also been made of email monitoring. The NSA maintains that it was not monitoring all calls for content but simply tracking who was calling whom. The implications for American law enforcement are huge because the NSA was always thought to be included under the laws that prevented intelligence agencies from operating on American soil. If that is no longer the case then the face of law enforcement will change forever in the United States as the NSA becomes more involved with tracking and monitoring the communications of United States citizens.

5. Development of the Department of Homeland Security

The Department of Homeland Security is a cabinet department of the U.S. Federal Government. The primary goal of the department is protecting the States and Territories of the United States from terrorist attacks, man made accidents, and natural disasters. The formation of the Department of Homeland Security changed the face of law enforcement in the United States by consolidating numerous separate agencies into one entity, these agencies include: The U.S. Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, The Transportation and Security Administration, The U.S. Coast Guard, The Secret Service, and more than a dozen other agencies. The goal of the DHS is to streamline inter-agency communications, and provide a centralized basis through which information on threats can be exchanged and evaluated by harnessing the resources of all departments working in unison to address major threats on domestic soil.

4. Use of Drones for Domestic Law Enforcement

One very new development in domestic law enforcement is the use of remote controlled drones. The FBI recently confirmed that it does use drones to conduct surveillance on a very limited basis. Students of law enforcement however, will recognize that what tends to be used on a very limited basis at first in law enforcement, becomes standard procedure over time. It is important to know that as of now, the drones being used for surveillance purposes are unarmed and used only to monitor very specific situations which were not revealed by the FBI. The director of the FBI has advocated vigorous debate on the topic of domestic drone use and has recommended that drones should for now have their use limited by the restrictions placed on helicopter surveillance.

Wall Street Journal Article on Domestic Use of Drones

3. The National Defense Appropriations Act of 2012 and the Controversy of Indefinite Detention

The National Defense Appropriations Act of 2012, a bill that is normally passed to affirm the budget of the armed forces and other agencies, is infamous for provisions that codified into law the ability of law enforcement and the military to indefinitely detain any person U.S. citizen or not, indefinitely if they are suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda or other terrorist organization. This controversial bill has the potential to change the face of the legal system in the United States. The bill has been challenged by a few groups, challenges that met with some initial success which was later undone on appeal. The bill has been vigorously opposed by the ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, The Center for Constitutional Rights, the Cato Institute, Reason Magazine, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The controversial indefinite detention provision is in section 1021 of the bill.

NDAA 2012 Wikipedia Entry
NDAA 2012 Full Text on Open Congress


This law, passed soon after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 vastly expanded the power of domestic law enforcement with the purpose of combating terrorist threats. The law bypassed the need for a warrant for searches and arrests on terrorism related matters, replacing the warrant with the National Security Letter. NSLs are granted by judges, and unlike warrants, the purpose behind the granting of these letters is sealed. Judges granting the letters, law enforcement officers executing the searches, and those being searched are all gagged, unable to talk about the letter having been granted, having searched or arrested somebody using a NSL, or having been searched or detained by officers executing an NSL. The Patriot has been challenged with limited success by the ACLU, but there are built in protections in the act itself that place gag orders on anybody filing suit against the act, preventing them from discussing the case, or even the act itself in public during the time of the lawsuit. In the years since the passing of the USA PATRIOT Act fears have been realized as the act is used increasingly to provide shortcuts to the investigation of garden variety crimes not linked to terrorism.


1. 9/11 and the Impact of the War on Terror

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were the most deadly, and destructive terrorist attacks of all time. They killed over 3,000 civilians. The impact of these attacks ranks up there with the sinking of the Lusitania and Pearl Harbor, the attacks that pulled the United States into World Wars I and II respectively. The impact of the event that has been commonly referred to since as 9/11 is still impacting both foreign and domestic policy in the United States nearly 12 years after the event itself took place. Since 9/11 the United States has fought two wars, and has performed military operations in many other countries in the name of combating terrorism. The domestic policy impact has ranged from the expansion of the power of domestic law enforcement under the Patriot Act, to the provision for the indefinite detention of non-citizens and American citizens suspected of terrorist ties under the 2012 National Defense Appropriations Act. The September 11, 2001 attacks also directly lead to the formation of the Homeland Security Agency.

War in Afghanistan
Iraq War
Drone Strikes in Pakistan
Drone Strikes in Yemen