Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968

views updated

Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968

Thomas M. Hilbink

Excerpt from the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968

Congress finds that the high incidence of crime in the United States threatens the peace, security, and general welfare of the Nation and its citizens. To prevent crime and to insure the greater safety of the people, law enforcement efforts must be better coordinated, intensified, and made more effective at all levels of government. Congress finds further that crime is essentially a local problem that must be dealt with by State and local governments if it is to be controlled effectively.

The late 1960s were years of great social and political upheaval in the United States. Crime policy reflected struggles over race and poverty, perhaps most clearly in the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (OCCSSA) (P.L. 90-351, 82 Stat. 197). This legislation bears the marks of divergent visions of the causes and cures of crime in America.


There was little debate over one matter in the mid-1960s: the United States was experiencing a nationwide upswing in crime. One barometer, the homicide rate, was approximately 10 murders per 100,000 in 1932. The homicide rate fell over the next two decades, settling around 5 per 100,000 throughout the 1950s. It began climbing around 1963, as did all major types of crime.

May 1965 marked the first time that a majority of people responding to nationwide polls named crime as the most important problem facing the nation. Such fears can be tied to forces beyond crime itself. Civil disobedience and marches by Southern blacks were met by widespread violence in the form of beatings, bombings, and murders by or with the approval of local police and government, most famously during the Birmingham protests of 1963. Broadcast over the nation's televisions, images of protests and police reaction gave many Americans the impression that lawlessness was epidemic. Urban riots only intensified such feelings.

Beginning in Harlem, a section of New York City, in 1964, and Watts, a section of Los Angeles, in 1965, summers came to be marked by urban unrest. Often sparked by incidents and allegations of police brutality, civil disorders occurred in over 100 cities by 1968, accompanied by looting, arson, and clashes with police and the National Guard. Reactions to crime, protest, and riots carried with them strong undercurrents of racism, a consistent facet of American law and politics in this period.

Whereas crime was not a concern in the 1960 presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, the issue rose to prominence in 1964. Candidates George Wallace and Barry Goldwater called for "law and order" in challenging President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson won the 1964 election, after which he seized on the crime issue by creating the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. The Katzenbach Commission, as it was known, issued dozens of studies on crime and criminal justice over the next two years. Pointing to the socioeconomic roots of crime, the commission's recommendations fit with the policy approaches of Johnson's Great Society. The commission called for more education, better training of law enforcement officers, and increased research on crime. The commission's proposals served as a blueprint for the OCCSSA, the crime bill Johnson sent to Congress in 1967.


The OCCSSA contained four major elements designed to address the crime problem:

  1. It created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) to provide financial assistance to state and local government law enforcement.
  2. It included provisions regarding the admissibility of confessions in criminal trials (through an amendment to the act in the Senate).
  3. It established procedures to allow wiretapping by law enforcement authorities.
  4. It included provisions that placed regulations on firearm sales and possession.

The LEAA constituted the core of Johnson's anticrime policy. Government grants supported state and local coordination and planning on crime fighting, education and training of law enforcement officers, surveys and advisory services relating to the operation of law enforcement agencies, development of demonstration programs, the creation and funding of institutes for research and training, and aid for equipment and infrastructure. Though state and local governments were straining to cover law enforcement budgets, throughout the legislative debate supporters and opponents of the bill expressed concerns that federal grant-making to state and local authorities could serve as the first step in creating a federal police force. These concerns stemmed from conflicts between federal, state, and local governments over the enforcement of civil rights laws and controversies relating to federal control of local programs under the Economic Opportunity Act. Thus, Congress removed provisions allowing for grants to pay officers' salaries and approved amendments giving state governors veto power over any grant.


In its first year, the LEAA granted $300 million, primarily to police for equipment purchases. Over the years the LEAA funded, among others, programs to train local bomb squads, pilot programs studying alternatives to incarceration, drug treatment programs, and state court organization and training. Significantly, the LEAA was responsible for developing national training programs for state and local law enforcement officers and lawyers, bringing modern techniques to many departments for the first time. By 1981, when the LEAA shut down and federal crime policy shifted toward direct federal involvement in law enforcement, the LEAA had granted over $8 billion. While some see the LEAA's shuttering as a sign of failure, states adopted 70 percent of LEAA-sponsored programs in one form or another. It thus made a significant contribution to the modernization and standardization of local law enforcement. More enduring was the act's creation of the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (now the National Institute of Justice). The institute revolutionized the gathering, interpretation, and dissemination of crime studies and statistics.

Title III of the act related to use of electronic surveillance (wiretapping) as a law enforcement practice. Although the Communications Act of 1934 made wiretapping a crime (even by law enforcement officers), police and others regularly engaged in such activity. The Supreme Court's decisions in Berger v. New York (1967) and Katz v. United States (1967) held that the gathering of evidence through electronic surveillance methods constitutes a "search and seizure" under the Fourth Amendment and is thus subject to Constitutional requirements. Reacting to those decisions, Congress established court procedures regulating law enforcement's use of electronic surveillance. (It otherwise made wiretapping a crime with limited exceptions.) Nowhere has the impact of the wiretapping provision been felt more acutely than in the world of organized crime. In trials since the act's passage, the government has relied heavily on wiretap evidence to convict organized crime figures at every level.

The regulation of firearms became a national issue in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, President Kennedy, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. But congressional debate on this matter reflected an apparently unfounded fear that African-Americans were stockpiling weapons. Prior to 1968, gun owners were required to register guns with the government as set out in the National Firearms Act of 1934, but the OCCSSA marked the first major restrictions on handgun purchase and ownership (the Gun Control Act of 1968 would extend restrictions to rifles and other firearms). The act required licensing of firearms manufacturers, dealers and importers; criminalized interstate transportation and sales of handguns by those not licensed; and banned sales to and possession of guns by indicted or convicted felons, veterans dishonorably discharged, undocumented immigrants, and the mentally ill, among others.

Finally, the act aimed to overturn Supreme Court decisions as to the admissibility of evidence obtained in violation of the Constitutional rights of the people under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court's decision in Miranda v. Arizona (1966) barred the use at trial of any voluntary confession if the confessor was not informed of his rights to remain silent and right to have an attorney assigned prior to questioning. Thus, Title II of the act allowed for the admission of such voluntary confessions, even if the police failed to inform the suspect of his rights. On this issue the legislation had little effect, as federal courts retained the power to determine the scope and applicability of the Constitution. The Supreme Court affirmed this view (and declared Title II unconstitutional) in Dickerson v. United States (2000).

The OCCSSA represented a major step toward federalization of crime policy and control. It also marked a shift from liberal crime policies focused on societal causes of crime to conservative policies focused on individual guilt and retribution. Both visions of crime control were present in the OCCSSA. However, the politics of "law and order" would dominate federal crime policy in the remaining decades of the century.

See also: Anti-Drug Abuse Act; Organized Crime Control Act of 1970; Sentencing Reform Act; Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.


Fagan, Jeffrey. "Continuity and Change in American Crime: Lessons from Three Decades." The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society: Looking Back ... Looking Forward, ed. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1997.

Feeley, Malcolmx, and Austin Sarat. The Policy Dilemma: Federal Crime Policy and the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980.

Finckemauer, James O. "Crime as a National Political Issue, 196476: From Law and Order to Domestic Tranquility." Crime and Delinquency 24 (1978): 1327.

Friedman, Lawrence. Crime and Punishment in American History. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society: A Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1967.

Scheingold, Stuart. The Politics of Law and Order. New York: Longman, 1984.

Walker, Samuel. "Reexamining the President's Crime Commission: The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society After Ten Years." Crime and Delinquency 24 (1978): 112.

Wilson, James Q. Thinking about Crime. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.