Headhunting: Effective in Organized-Crime Combat?

Beginning with U.S. Attorney George E. Q. Johnson's Prohibition‐era efforts to identify and prosecute leaders (the heads) of the Capone gang for any offense, federal law enforcement efforts against organized crime have been based on a headhunting strategy. Often the offenses are unrelated to the main illegal enterprises of a criminal gang or criminal organization. Johnson, for example, successfully prosecuted Al Capone for income tax evasion rather than for bootlegging, racketeering, gambling, or any of Capone's other illegal business operations.

“Headhunting” is an effective strategy for fighting organized crime

Supporters of headhunting use “body counts” to measure success.

  1. Some criminal organizations are too well‐organized and complex to allow for criminal prosecutions of their leaders for murder or other serious crimes. If the government can't successfully prosecute notorious criminals for the many serious crimes they are suspected of having committed, it is proper to subject them to prosecutions for a variety of other crimes, including tax evasion, for which they wouldn't be investigated and charged were it not for their notoriety. If an individual is in fact guilty of the crime charged, the prosecutor's motive is immaterial.

  2. Prosecutions of leaders of organized crime groups disrupt criminal organizations.

  3. Headhunting allows prosecutors to arrest low‐level offenders on minor charges and get them to flip—that is, plea bargain with low‐level offenders to secure their testimony against big fish (the top leaders).

“Headhunting” is not an effective strategy for fighting organized crime

Critics claim headhunting doesn't work for the following reasons:

  1. Prosecuting the leaders of organized‐crime groups doesn't disrupt the criminal groups. Groups replace incarcerated leaders with other group members and adapt to headhunting by decentralizing operations.

  2. Headhunting often involves targeting the easiest cases—low‐level offenders as well as highly visible and public organized‐crime figures. While the arrest, prosecution, and conviction of such criminals provides good publicity for the federal law enforcement agencies, it doesn't weaken organized crime.

Evaluating “headhunting”

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the federal government prosecuted and convicted hundreds of leaders of organized‐crime families. In New York City, the leaders of each of the five Mafia crime families (Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese) were prosecuted and sent to prison. This law enforcement attack generated serious instability within the crime families. Experts attribute the government's success, in part, to headhunting as well as to powerful legal weapons and the initiatives of presidents and U.S. attorneys general.