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Address to the Associated Press: Law Enforcement and Respect for the Law.

April 22, 1929

Members and friends of the Associated Press:

I have accepted this occasion for a frank statement of what I consider the dominant issue before the American people. Its solution is more vital to the preservation of our institutions than any other question before us. That is the enforcement and obedience to the laws of the United States, both Federal and State.

I ask only that you weigh this for yourselves, and if my position is right, that you support it--not to support me but to support something infinitely more precious--the one force that holds our civilization together--law. And I wish to discuss it as law, not as to the merits or demerits of a particular law but all law, Federal and State, for ours is a government of laws made by the people themselves.

A surprising number of our people, otherwise of responsibility in the community, have drifted into the extraordinary notion that laws are made for those who choose to obey them. And in addition, our law enforcement machinery is suffering from many infirmities arising out of its technicalities, its circumlocutions, its involved procedures, and too often, I regret, from inefficient and delinquent officials.

We are reaping the harvest of these defects. More than 9,000 human beings are lawlessly killed every year in the United States. Little more than half as many arrests follow. Less than one-sixth of these slayers are convicted, and but a scandalously small percentage are adequately punished. Twenty times as many people in proportion to population are lawlessly killed in the United States as in Great Britain. In many of our great cities murder can apparently be committed with impunity. At least 50 times as many robberies in proportion to population are committed in the United States as in Great Britain, and 3 times as many burglaries.

Even in such premeditated crimes as embezzlement and forgery our [p.102] record stands no comparison with stable nations. No part of the country, rural or urban, is immune. Life and property are relatively more unsafe than in any other civilized country in the world. In spite of all this we have reason to pride ourselves on our institutions and the high moral instincts of the great majority of our people. No one will assert that such crimes would be committed if we had even a normal respect for law and if the laws of our country were properly enforced.

In order to dispel certain illusions in the public mind on this subject, let me say at once that while violations of law have been increased by inclusion of crimes under the 18th amendment and by the vast sums that are poured into the hands of the criminal classes by the patronage of illicit liquor by otherwise responsible citizens, yet this is but one segment of our problem. I have purposely cited the extent of murder, burglary, robbery, forgery, and embezzlement, for but a small percentage of these can be attributed to the 18th amendment. In fact, of the total number of convictions for felony last year, less than 8 percent came from that source. It is, therefore, but a sector of the invasion of lawlessness.

What we are facing today is something far larger and more fundamental-the possibility that respect for law as law is fading from the sensibilities of our people. Whatever the value of any law may be, the enforcement of that law written in plain terms upon our statute books is not, in my mind, a debatable question. Law should be observed and must be enforced until it is repealed by the proper processes of our democracy. The duty to enforce the laws rests upon every public official and the duty to obey it rests upon every citizen.

No individual has the right to determine what law shall be obeyed and what law shall not be enforced. If a law is wrong, its rigid enforcement is the surest guaranty of its repeal. If it is right, its enforcement is the quickest method of compelling respect for it. I have seen statements published within a few days encouraging citizens to defy a law because that particular journal did not approve of the law itself. I leave comment on such an attitude to any citizen with a sense of responsibility to his country.

In my position, with my obligations, there can be no argument on these points. There is no citizen who would approve of the President of the United States assuming any other attitude. It may be said by some that the larger responsibility for the enforcement of laws against crime rests with State and local authorities and it does not concern the Federal Government. But it does concern the President of the United States, both as a citizen and as the one upon whom rests the primary responsibility of leadership for the establishment of standards of law enforcement in this country. Respect for law and obedience to law does not distinguish between Federal and State laws--it is a common conscience.

After all, the processes of criminal-law enforcement are simply methods of instilling respect and fear into the minds of those who have not the intelligence and moral instinct to obey the law as a matter of conscience. The real problem is to awaken this consciousness, this moral sense, and if necessary to segregate such degenerate minds where they can do no future harm.

We have two immediate problems before us in government: to investigate our existing agencies of enforcement and to reorganize our system of enforcement in such manner as to eliminate its weaknesses. It is the purpose of the Federal administration systematically to strengthen its law enforcement agencies week by week, month by month, year by year, not by dramatic displays and violent attacks in order to make headlines, not by violating the law itself through misuse of the law in its enforcement, but by steady pressure, steady weeding out of all incapable and negligent officials no matter what their status; by encouragement, promotion, and recognition for those who do their duty; and by the most rigid scrutiny of the records and attitudes of all persons suggested for appointment to official posts in our entire law enforcement machinery. That is administration for which my colleagues and I are fully responsible so far as the human material which can be assembled for the task will permit. Furthermore, I wish to determine and, as far as possible, remove the scores of inherent defects in our present system that defeat the most devoted officials.

Every student of our law enforcement mechanism knows full well that it is in need of vigorous reorganization; that its procedure unduly [p.104] favors the criminal; that our judiciary needs to be strengthened; that the method of assembling our juries needs revision; that justice must be more swift and sure. In our desire to be merciful the pendulum has swung in favor of the prisoner and far away from the protection of society. The sympathetic mind of the American people in its overconcern about those who are in difficulties has swung too far from the family of the murdered to the family of the murderer.

With a view to enlisting public understanding, public support, accurate determination of the facts, and constructive conclusions, I have proposed to establish a national commission to study and report upon the whole of our problems involved in criminal-law enforcement. That proposal has met with gratifying support, and I am sure it will have the cooperation of the bar associations and crime commissions in our various States in the widespread effort now being made by them. I do not propose to be hasty in the selection of this commission. I want time and advice, in order that I may select high-minded men, impartial in their judgment, skilled in the science of the law and our judicial system, clear in their conception of our institutions. Such a commission can perform the greatest of service to our generation.

There is another and vastly wider field than the nature of laws and the methods of their enforcement. This is the basic question of the understanding, the ideals, the relationship of the individual citizen to the law itself. It is in this field that the press plays a dominant part. It is almost final in its potency to arouse the interest and consciousness of our people. It can destroy their finer sensibilities or it can invigorate them. I am well aware that the great majority of our important journals day by day give support to these high ideals.

I wonder, sometimes, however, if perhaps a little more support to our laws could not be given in one direction. If, instead of the glamor of romance and heroism which our American imaginative minds too frequently throw around those who break the law, we would invest with a little romance and heroism those thousands of our officers who are endeavoring to enforce the law, it would itself decrease crime. Praise and respect for those who properly enforce the laws and daily condemnation of those who defy the laws would help. Perhaps a little [p.105] better proportioned balance of news concerning those criminals who are convicted and punished would serve to instill the fear of the law.

I need not repeat that absolute freedom of the press to discuss public questions is a foundation stone of American liberty. I put the question, however, to every individual conscience, whether flippancy is a useful or even legitimate device in such discussions. I do not believe it is. Its effect is as misleading and as distorting of public conscience as deliberate misrepresentation. Not clarification, but confusion of issues arises from it.

Our people for many years have been intensely absorbed in business, in the astonishing upbuilding of a great country, and we have attempted to specialize in our occupations, to strive to achieve in our own specialities and to respect competency of others in theirs. Unconsciously, we have carried this psychology into our state of mind toward government. We tend to regard the making of laws and their administration as a function of a group of specialists in government whom we hired for this purpose and whom we call public servants. After hiring them it is our purpose casually to review their actions, to accept those which we approved, and to reject the rest.

This attitude of mind is destructive government is predicated upon the fact will take his part in the creation of law, of self-government, for self-government is predicated on the fact that every responsible citizen will take his part in the creation of law, obedience to law, and the selection of officials and methods for its enforcement.

Finally, I wish to again reiterate that the problem of law enforcement is not alone a function or business of government. If law can be upheld only by enforcement officers, then our scheme of government is at an end. Every citizen has a personal duty in it--the duty to order his own actions, to so weigh the effect of his example, that his conduct shall be a positive force in his community with respect to the law.

I have no criticism to make of the American press. I greatly admire its independence and its courage. I sometimes feel that it could give more emphasis to one phase or another of our national problem, but I realize the difficulties under which it operates. I am wondering whether the time has not come, however, to realize that we are confronted with a national necessity of the first degree, that we are not suffering from an ephemeral crime wave but from a subsidence of our foundations.

Possibly the time is at hand for the press to systematically demand and support the reorganization of our law enforcement machinery--Federal, State, and local--so that crime may be reduced, and on the other hand to demand that our citizens shall awake to the fundamental consciousness of democracy which is that the laws are theirs and that every responsible member of a democracy has the primary duty to obey the law.

It is unnecessary for me to argue the fact that the very essence of freedom is obedience to law; that liberty itself has but one foundation, and that is in the law.

And in conclusion let me recall an oft-repeated word from Abraham Lincoln, whose invisible presence lives hourly at the very desk and in the very halls which it is my honor to occupy:

Let every man remember that to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own and his children's liberty. Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap. Let it be taught in the schools, in seminaries, in colleges. Let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in the legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the Nation, and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay of all sexes and tongues and colors and conditions sacrifice unceasingly upon its altar.

Note: The President spoke at 1 p.m. at the annual luncheon of the Associated Press in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.

Herbert Hoover, Address to the Associated Press: Law Enforcement and Respect for the Law. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/209057

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