Agency Spotlight–Eliot Ness

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Eliot Ness is one of the most famous federal agents in the history of law enforcement. He and his team, the Untouchables, broke organized crime in Chicago, which was dubbed the “crime capital of the world”. They put away famous criminals and gangsters, including Al Capone and became so well known that a comic strip was based on their stories, and the famous character Dick Tracy was born.

He entered service in 1926, and by that time three of the Treasury Departments six law enforcement arms—Prohibition Unit, Coast Guard, and Customs—were working together, sharing information, and conducting joint operations against the organized crime threat.

During his 10 years with ATF, Ness demonstrated he possessed intelligence, ability, honesty, and integrity. After cleaning up Chicago, he went on to clean up two other cities with corrupt law enforcement agencies; Cleveland and Cincinnati. He resigned after 10 years and became the Cleveland Public Safety Director. Criminals completely controlled the liquor industry. Assassinations, bombs, bullets, and corruption were routine. Bootleggers and gangsters who forged close ties with local authorities were common. Chicago was one of those cities.

agentsNess’ Chicago Assignment

Al Capone all but owned Chicago. The collective force of 3,000 police officers and 300 prohibition agents couldn’t bring down his empire. 1930 brought two major events that not only changed the course of Ness’ career but also redirected the federal law enforcement trajectory; ATF’s legacy in particular.

  • The first was the Bureau of Prohibition was transferred from the U.S Department of Treasury to the U.S. Department of Justice. Their mission increasingly focused on fighting violent crime.
  • The Second was President Herbert Hoover declared war against Capone. It set into motion a two-armed investigative attack on Capone. One led by the Bureau of Prohibition Investigative Division Special Agent Eliot Ness—ordered to cripple Capone’s operations and gather evidence of prohibition violations. The second led by lawmen Elmer Irey and Frank Wilson of the Internal Revenue Service. They investigated Capone’s finances for evidence of money laundering and tax evasion.

The team damaged Capone’s organization and it led to the indictment of Al Capone on over 5,000 prohibition violations under the Volstead Act. They also went on to successfully apprehend many of Chicago’s notorious gangsters and bootleggers.

agentsCincinnati and Cleveland Assignments

In September 1933, Ness transferred from Chicago to Cincinnati as a Sr. Investigator. Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933, and the Bureau of Prohibition was reorganized as the Alcohol Beverage Unit briefly before being transferred back to the Treasury Department as the Alcohol Tax Unit.

ATU faced many challenges. The country wasn’t prepared to re-establish the legal liquor industry because criminals continued to illegally produce and distribute distilled spirits. Organized crime once again rose. ATU seized many alcohol distilleries in the first few months after its creation. They managed to bring down large liquor syndicates, changing the perception of federal law enforcement, as well as the attitudes of prosecutors, juries, and courts.

agentsIn December 1934, Cleveland had a need for a lawman like Eliot Ness. The city was infested with so much crime and corruption that it earned a reputation as an untamed town. He was 31 years old when he arrived as the Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Department of Treasury’s ATU in the northern district of Ohio. Thirty-four agents were under his command and they tracked down, raided, and destroyed a string of illegal liquor operations, earning a reputation of taking down a still a day.

Ness would serve as Investigator in Charge of the Cleveland Office of ATU until January 1, 1936, when he resigned to become the Cleveland Public Safety Director. His new position put him in charge of police and fire departments where he successfully headed a campaign to clean up corruption and modernize both service institutions.

Today, Eliot Ness symbolizes that no matter how challenging the times, circumstances, or mission, the badge continues to represent the tradition of “untouchable” honesty, integrity, and ethical behavior for those who serve and protect.

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