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Organized Crime: Analyzing Illegal Activities, Criminal Structures, and Extra-legal Governance

Organized Crime: Analyzing Illegal Activities, Criminal Structures, and Extra-legal Governance

Author: Klaus von Lampe
Publisher: Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016. 488p.
Reviewer: Frederick T. Martens | September 2016

Let me begin by simply saying, you will not be disappointed by the intellectual rigor von Lampe brings to the discourse on organized crime. In fact, you will be overwhelmed by his appropriately nuanced understanding of a phenomenon that has caused considerable acrimony, consternation, and at times, a disingenuous debate within the research and academic communities. It is without question, the most comprehensive and robust treatment of organized crime research, theories and perspectives that has been published to date. Applying the eye and grammatical precision of a skilled litigator who can separate fact-based evidence from rhetorical and fuzzy proclamations, von Lampe has provided the reader and certainly the academic community with the most compelling composite of this social and economic phenomenon known as organized crime.

In 399 pages supplemented by approximately 1000 sources (yes 1000!) this text has elevated von Lampe to the status of the pre-eminent academic and social scientist in this field today.

But with that said, what would a “review” be without critical insights into a book’s shortcomings? Nothing more than a “puff-piece” that enhances the author’s ego (and sales) but may add nothing to the substantive discourse or debate. So let me begin with some of the issues that could and should bear further inquiry and discussion.

von Lampe has indicated in the PREFACE that this book is designed as a reference and guide to “…law enforcement officials… and …the general public.” Let me suggest quite frankly that I can NOT believe that law enforcement officials would have any interest in the multitude of models, paradigms, structures, networks or enterprises that von Lampe has so meticulously deconstructed. And the public I suspect, would be infinitely bored and flummoxed by the academically-laden jargon that permeates this book. Such phrases as “The Emergence of Criminally Relevant Trust From Licit Social Relations,” “The Social Microcosm of Illegal Entrepreneurs,” and/or “Potential Network Ties and Offender Convergence Settings” among hundreds of other examples, will do little to attract law enforcement policy makers or the general public to the author or his research.

I am most troubled that at no time does von Lampe cite G. Robert Blakey, the legal technician and conceptual guru in the formulation of RICO fifty (50) years ago. While von Lampe discusses other sections of the 1967 Task Force Report: Organized Crime quite thoroughly, he seems to avoid deconstructing Blakey’s ground-breaking jurisprudential research in 1967, when the concept of enterprise crime did not even exist as a legal construct. It was this piece of legal research that has withstood any number of court challenges and has dismembered criminal organizations and enterprises nationwide---Mafia, Cosa Nostra, Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, street gangs, illegal and fraudulent financial enterprises etc. Why there was not a mention in the body of the text about Blakey (von Lampe does mention RICO as a tool to address organized crime) and the depth and breadth of this legal construct called RICO remains a mystery, but one that von Lampe deserves to be called out on -- particularly given his legal background?
Along these lines, it seems somewhat remarkable that von Lampe ignored many of the renowned authors, scholars, researchers, and respectable journalists who have contributed to our understanding or as some might say, misunderstanding of organized crime.

For example, the late Ralph Salerno, who was a significant contributor to the 1967 Task Force Report: Organized Crime and published a contrarian view to that of Cressey, is not mentioned. A legal analysis (which von Lampe has the skills to have dissected) of the “Commission Trial” in New York City, is given scant attention. The many books and Royal Commissions that have uncovered organized crime in Australia are not cited. The ethnographic research by Dubro and Kaplan on the Yakuza is ignored, as are the many documentarians who have produced award-winning programs on organized crime, to include the Mafia. Journalists of equal and perhaps even more prominence and respect than those mentioned by von Lampe are curiously absent.

In and of itself, this criticism would be meaningless except for the fact that von Lampe’s search for “the truth” includes a bibliography that could easily be included in the Guinness Book of World Record.

Hence, one is left (or right) to question whether von Lampe has engaged in a selective use of research by “cherry-picking” those who subscribe to a specific ideological, theoretical, historical or anti-government persuasion or perspective? I shall leave this for others to address but accept on face value, a less malevolent explanation.

Without question, von Lampe’s approach is the most thorough vetting of the many different and often conflicting descriptions, theories, research and perceptions of organized crime. To quibble over what was not cited or sourced by von Lampe seems to be a bit petty given the scope, depth and solid substantive analytical rigor that von Lampe brought to the body of the text.

Let me unequivocally say that von Lampe gets it when it comes to understanding Cressey and what he had to say and work with in the 1960’s. “All of these claims (referring to Cosa Nostra and the formal structure outlined in the Theft of the Nation) have been contested more or less vigorously. Arguably, the most controversial notion conveyed in Cressey’s book, however, is that ‘while Cosa Nostra still tolerates some major operations by criminals of ethnic backgrounds which are not Sicilian or Italian, if one understands Cosa Nostra, he understands organized crime in the United States.’ It is this idea to which Cressey’s views on organized crime are commonly reduced…this is in essence what critics of Cressey have dubbed the ‘mafia model’ or ‘bureaucratic model of organized crime,’ or respectively the ‘alien conspiracy theory.’ The fact that Theft of the Nation as well as a later book, Criminal Organizations (1972) contains a much more cautious and differentiated analysis has for the most part been ignored.” [Emphasis mine]
What von Lampe has finally done is shine a light on the many disingenuous, self-serving, indefensible and mindless claims of some social scientists who have unfairly maligned Cressey and his scholarly work. Had von Lampe taken into account the work of Salerno and Thompkins, he could have made an even stronger case that contrary to the claims of some that Cressey was “hoodwinked” by Salerno, Cressey worked with what he had been given by the U.S. Justice Department, which relied upon a number of unauthorized wiretaps and bugs on both gangsters and public officials. And at that time—the 60’s-- and for years thereafter, Cosa Nostra or Mafia (yes, these critics also like to demonstrate how these two terms are inappropriately interchangeable, thus suggesting they are creatures of law enforcement) was the dominant and most durable, self-sustaining and corrupting criminal organization in many cities in the United States. On this point alone, von Lampe has shown the courage to confront and expose the hypocrisy and patently false criticisms of Cressey.

Interestingly, von Lampe does enter the quagmire of ethnic and racial homogeneity, but in a quite cautious manner. Realizing perhaps that both Ianni, in publishing Black Mafia had been unfairly criticized for adhering to classic stereotypes of the Black culture, and of course Cressey, for being condemned rather brutally for creating the “alien conspiracy” theory in his portrayal of Cosa Nostra, von Lampe addresses ethnicity and race in a very clever (noted though, it is not singled out in the index such as gender and organized crime is?) yet appropriate manner. He quite properly links it to the issue of “trust” ---a very real consideration when entering into a criminal conspiracy. To quote von Lampe, “ethnicity seems to play a role not only in the minds of the public but also in the minds of criminals, so that it cannot be completely discounted as a factor influencing the emergence of criminal structures…” (p. 117). Again, von Lampe has struck another central nerve in researching organized crime: the critical role that ethnicity and race often play in creating trust and by extension, secrecy among the participants of these criminal networks, enterprises, organizations, etc.

Yet another strength of von Lampe’s well-thought-out magnum opus is his willingness to embrace the experiences of both practitioners and gangsters (sometimes the two are indistinguishable) in the field; people like Joe Pistone, “Sonny” Barger, Frank Salerno, Bill Roemer, Jules Bonavolonta, Gilbert Kelland and many others. While so-called “scientific research” is a beautiful thing, much of what we know about organized crime cannot be quantified, duplicated, or objectively studied and reported upon. The “wink and the nod” of a “Boss” of a criminal enterprise, network, etc.; the mere appearance of a Hells Angel at a meeting between competing criminal factions; the symbolic murder of a renegade bookmaker by the Cosa Nostra cannot be neatly captured and catalogued in empirical studies. These are the realities in the routine lives of gangsters that send a message, make an example, and convey the power and influence of a boss or member. von Lampe has, to his credit, integrated these experiences into his treatment of organized crime.

Indeed, von Lampe has accomplished what others have either not attempted or failed at: to deconstruct the term organized crime and create a broad variety of models or paradigms that should be embraced, studied, expounded upon and seriously considered in shaping social and law enforcement policy and actions to contain the harmful and injurious effects and growth of organized crime. Not all forms of organized crime are equal in terms of their effect or harms on society. Some forms are more injurious to the body politic than are others. The ability to differentiate and address each with a more nuanced and laser-like approach is essential to a sound and rational approach to organized crime.
If I may reflect back upon the early years of conducting organized crime research, often catchy analogies such as “organized crime is like a cancer; it feeds on human weakness; it is seldom detected until it is too late and the body politic has been destroyed” permeated the literature. What von Lampe does is give law enforcement and policy makers the skills to diagnose the extent of metastasis and reflect on the tools available to surgically extricate the cancer known as organized crime.

Certainly, a welcomed retreat from the “war against organized crime,” to say the least!

Frederick T. Martens, co-author of Police Intelligence in Crime Control: Maintaining a Delicate Balance In a Liberal Democracy (1983) and “We’ll Make You An Offer You Can’t Refuse”: A Primer on the Investigation of Public Corruption (2015). Former President of IASOC; President of Complex Litigation Sciences, LLC.

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