The Wickersham Commission and its effect on Prohibition


Photo credit: Library of Congress

“Prohibition is an awful flop. We like it. It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.
We like it. It’s left a trail of graft and slime. It don’t prohibit worth a dime.”*

January marks two important dates in law enforcement history. The 18th Amendment, also known as the Prohibition Amendment, went into effect on January 16, 1920. Just over a decade later on January 7, 1931, the Wickersham Commission released its much-awaited report on Prohibition and crime.
Prohibition did not ban consumption of alcohol, only its sale, transport, and manufacture. Advocates hoped that a dry country would mark a return to family values and decrease crime. Instead, crime—particularly organized crime—increased.
President Hoover was looking for a way to enforce Prohibition and curb organized crime when he appointed the 11-member Wickersham Commission. Officially known as the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, it was spear-headed by former Attorney General George W. Wickersham and contained some of the most noted names in law enforcement at the time. The primary author of the Commission’s final report was August Vollmer, widely considered the father of modern law enforcement for bringing science into police work and his emphasis on criminal justice reform.
After two years, the Commission published its findings. In the 14-volume report, members were unable to reach a consensus on the efficacy of Prohibition. In addition, the report assessed police interrogation tactics, corruption in police ranks, and problems communities faced when enforcing laws related to Prohibition. The report criticized police for what it called a “general failure” to make arrests in many murders and bank robberies. President Hoover noted that while the report indicated enforcement of Prohibition was ineffective, the commission did not unanimously favor repealing the 18th Amendment. Nonetheless, the 18th Amendment was repealed almost two years later.
*From New York World Columnist Franklin P. Adams’ poem on the Wickersham Commission’s report.