Pages Navigation Menu

The G-man: Hoover’s “ideal law enforcement officer”

To better ensure that crimes got solved and criminals got caught, J. Edgar Hoover demanded that the Bureau’s agents meet and exhibit the highest professional standards. The expected qualities, and they were legion, were listed in a speech given in September, 1934, by Assistant Director Harold Nathan on his boss’s behalf. The “ideal law enforcement officer,” and that certainly meant the Bureau’s special agents, according to Nathan, “should be well educated, because law enforcement is now a profession.” In the FBI, that meant a law or accounting degree. He (and there was no “she” in the ranks of special agents) should also be “truly intelligent. He should possess a mind capable of thinking quickly and effectively along the shortest possible lines to the solution of the most complicated, baffling problems. His thinking should be supplemented by a broad experience with all kinds and classes of humanity.” Hoover also demanded that his men be:

  • possess[ed of] that intuitive quality of combined sympathy and imaginative understanding which enables him to live instinctively within the thoughts and feelings of those with whom he comes in contact.
  • industrious.
  • naturally, instinctively honorable—not only honest in his financial dealings, not only with law-abiding citizens, but honorable with criminals.
  • tenaciously, indefatigably persistent… never permit[ting] himself to look upon any case as ultimately unsolved or insoluble.
  • just as eager to find evidence which will prove a suspected individual innocent as to establish indisputably the guilt of a person under suspicion.
  • accurate.
  • emotionally well-balanced…. Resentment, personal dislike, revenge should never affect or sway his official conduct.
  • open-minded.
  • a good judge of human nature; and… naturally sympathetic.
  • optimistic…. He should look upon every case as something new and novel, the raw material of the unknown with which he may build his newest, latest, greatest masterpiece.
  • courageous… ready at all times to make the supreme sacrifice.
  • ambitious, aggressively ambitious—hoping, demanding the best for himself and his organization; and above all he should be enthusiastic.

The ideal law enforcement organization, according to Nathan, speaking Hoover’s mind, “First and foremost… selects its personnel with the greatest care from the best available material.” The applicant’s record and associations should be “rigidly scrutinized” all the way back to his school days. Higher education, agency testing, and hiring interviews ensured that the prospective law enforcement officer possessed the required “resourcefulness, aggressiveness, tact, energy, and the like.” Training in all facets of the job was necessary, while advancement based on merit and “liberal salaries should be paid.”[1]

The Division of Investigation (DOI), as Hoover’s bureau became on July 1, 1933, fielded nearly 500 agents in mid-1934. Four-fifths were lawyers or accountants, and 116 had multiple university degrees. Fifty were said to speak foreign languages, but Spanish-speaking agents were rare. Most of them were young (their average age was 35) and, after several bloody missteps in the war on bank bandits, nearly all had received training in the use of pistols, rifles, automatic shotguns, and submachine guns. This homogenous army of always well-dressed college grads was stiffened by a few older lawmen possessing the experience to properly lead an investigation while commanding respect from the locals. They were also “no-bullshit Cowboys” who knew which end of a gun to point and were unafraid to pull the trigger first.[2]

[1] Harold Nathan, “The Ideal Law Enforcement Officer and the Ideal Law Enforcement Organization,” Address given to the Pacific Coast Institute of Law and Administration of Justice, September, 1934, 14 Or. L. Rev., 327-338.

[2] The new DOI was created by the merger of the BOI and the Bureau of Prohibition. Hoover, director of both agencies, kept the bureaus separate, so as not to involve his “special agents” in liquor control. New York Times, July 29, 1934, The reference to “cowboys” comes from Burrough, Public Enemies, 53.