1931 August 10

Wickersham Commission: First-Ever Report on Police Brutality


The Wickersham Commission, appointed by President Herbert Hoover, was the first federal study of the American criminal justice system. It published 14 volumes on different aspects of crime and criminal justice. The most famous report was “Lawlessness in Law Enforcement,” issued on this day. It created a sensation as a blistering account of police abuse of citizens, including widespread physical brutality, prolonged detention, and coercion of confessions.

The authors of the report included the noted attorneys Zechariah Chafee of Harvard Law School, and Walter Pollak, the ACLU’s main advocate before the Supreme Court during these years, and attorney Carl Stern. While the report did not have any immediate effect, it had a long-term impact in terms of documenting the problem of serious police misconduct and providing a point of reference for civic activists, academics, and reform-minded police chiefs in the decades ahead.

The next national level study of the problem was the 1961 report by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, on November 17, 1961, which found police brutality a “serious problem” nationwide. Police misconduct was also highlighted by the Kerner Commission report on the riots of the 1960s on February 29, 1968.

The Commission: “The inflicting of pain, physical or mental, to extract confessions or statements… is widespread throughout the country.”

Read the shocking report: Wickersham Commission, Lawlessness in Law Enforcement (1931)

Learn more about the Wickersham Commission: Samuel Walker, Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice, 2nd ed (1997)

Read the famous 1991 Christopher Commission report on the Los Angeles Police: http://www.parc.info/client_files/Special%20Reports/1%20-%20Chistopher%20Commision.pdf

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