How Federalism Built the FBI, Sustained Local Police, and Left Out the States

43 Pages Posted: 30 Nov 2020 Last revised: 10 Dec 2020

Date Written: September 28, 2020


This Article examines the endurance of police localism amid the improbable growth of the FBI in the early twentieth century when the prospect of a centralized law enforcement agency was anathema to the ideals of American democracy. It argues that doctrinal accounts of federalism do not explain these paradoxical developments. By analyzing how the Bureau made itself indispensable to local police departments rather than encroaching on their turf, the Article elucidates an operational, or collaborative, federalism that not only enlarged the Bureau’s capacity and authority but also strengthened local autonomy at the expense of the states. Collaborative federalism is crucial for understanding why the police have gone for so long without meaningful state or federal oversight, with consequences still confronting the country today. This history highlights how structural impediments to institutional accountability have been set over time and also identifies a path not taken, but one that can still be pursued, to expand the states’ supervisory role over local police.

Keywords: police reform, FBI, intergovernmental relations, federalism, federal criminal law, state government, police localism

JEL Classification: K14, K42, N42, N72

Suggested Citation

Richman, Daniel C. and Seo, Sarah, How Federalism Built the FBI, Sustained Local Police, and Left Out the States (September 28, 2020). Forthcoming, Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Vol. 17, 2021, Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-679, Available at SSRN: or

Daniel C. Richman (Contact Author)

Columbia Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States

Sarah Seo

Columbia Law School ( email )

435 West 116th St
NEW YORK, NY 10027
(212) 854-4779 (Phone)
11201 (Fax)

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