Never Ready for Reform Part 7/X

The Illinois Crime Commission Report was published in 1929. That same year, President Herbert Hoover created the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, commonly known as the Wickersham Commission. Prompted by problems of crime and criminal justice that many attributed to Prohibition, the Commission was directed to look at criminal justice around the country and prepare a report on necessary reforms.

Congress defunded the Commission in 1931, but not before it managed to produce fourteen volumes of reports on criminal justice in the United States. The Commission addressed policing in several volumes, two in particular, volume 11: Lawlessness in Law Enforcement and volume 14: Police Conditions in the United States, looked at police departments around the country.

Although it did not use the term, the Wickersham Commission noted, and condemned, the national tendency toward the type of aggressive, militarized policing that Chicago’s city council had deplored in 1915.

The report on police conditions, written in part by August Vollmer, repeated many of the complaints Vollmer previously had made about the Chicago police department: police departments (and police chiefs) around the country were too political, their record keeping was often poor, the training they offered to the officers they hired was inadequate,  and local departments needed to be put under state-wide control. It also added a new, sharper criticism of the quality of the people hired to be police officers, and recommended that more intelligent recruits, in better physical condition be hired and paid a living wage.

More to the point, in volume 11, the Commission focused on the extent the police in Chicago and other police departments around the country used torture (often known as the third degree) to force confessions from suspects.  Though it expressed some hope that police torture was dying out in the city, the “third degree,” the Commission wrote, “is throughly at home in Chicago.” (volume 11, page 125). Echoing earlier reports, the Commission blamed political pressure and corruption, noting:

The Chicago public at the present time is much more concerned with the reduction of crime than with official lawlessness. Much crime in Chicago is committed by brutal ruffians; the public are less inclined to blame the police for beating up such men than for letting them get away scot-free. The reduction of the evils of graft, leading to nonenforcement of the law, is felt to be the first step in reform. It is said that only after these things are accomplished can attention be given to brutality and lawlessness on the part of the police and other officials. (volume 11, page 130)

In Chicago, police department leadership immediately condemned the third and promised to punish any officer who tortured a suspect. Use of torture in Chicago did not, however, stop with the publication of the Wickersham Commission report.



Published by


Writer. Formerly civil rights attorney. Currently professor. Working on new book about mental disability and criminal law in the 20th century.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s