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Back to Archives | Back to May 2008 Contents 

National Law Enforcement Museum: A Tribute in the Making

By Eshanthi Ranasinghe, Special Projects Associate, National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, Washington, D.C.

ome of the most notorious criminals in U.S. history were brought down by a law enforcement leader who remains almost as overlooked today as he was when he died 60 years ago. He nailed the real bad guys: not your run-of-the-mill burglars and stick-up men but the big fish—guys who seldom did the dirty work themselves, instead commanding small armies of criminals on the street and keeping a hand in every cookie jar in town. Guys who used a team of lawyers and brute intimidation to keep their illegal acts, and millions of dollars in profits, quiet. Guys like Al Capone.

But few people know the real story behind the fall of “Scarface”—who and what really brought him and many other infamous criminals down. Elmer Irey, chief of the Special Intelligence Unit of the Internal Revenue Service, and his group of “T-Men” uncovered well over $475 million in tax deficiencies, and one of his most famous cases was built against Capone in the mid- to late 1920s.1 Irey and his team meticulously tracked approximately five years of Capone’s unpaid taxes, from 1924 to 1929; in 1931 that evidence, along with Eliot Ness’s case documenting Capone’s violations of the Prohibition Law, finally brought the infamous gangster to trial.

Capone was found guilty on only 5 of the 22 counts against him, and all 5 of those counts related to income tax evasion. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison and was fined over $272,000. After serving 7½ years of his term, Capone returned to his Florida home, greatly deteriorated from general paresis derived from syphilis. After his release, he never publicly returned to Chicago again, mentally incapable of going back to his mobster life.2

The fascinating and expansive history of law enforcement in the United States is as unfamiliar to many people as the real story behind Al Capone’s conviction. The many roles that law enforcement officials fill, whether bringing down career criminals or walking the neighborhood beat, should be shared with and experienced by all, not just protectors of the law. For that reason, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) has been working hard to build the National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington, D.C.—raising money, collecting artifacts, and finalizing plans for a high-tech experiential museum that will tell, and show, the true story of the U.S. law enforcement community.

Museum Design

Figure 1. Design of the National Law Enforcement Museum
Image courtesy of the National Law Enforcement Museum
Spanning 95,000 square feet of mostly underground space and designed by world-renowned Davis Buckley Architects and Planners (the firm that also designed the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial), the new museum will be an architectural wonder. Glass pavilions set in D.C.’s historic Judiciary Square (see figure 1) will lead down to five expansive galleries that will take visitors through life “behind the badge.”

Being an Officer Gallery: Visitors will begin training in the Being an Officer gallery, where they can find out if they really have what it takes to become an officer of the law. Training starts at the “Academy,” where a shoot/don’t shoot judgment simulator and a high-speed driving simulator will not only test each visitor’s ability to make critical, split-second decisions but will also give the public a new appreciation of the difficult decisions law enforcement officers must make.

Next, visitors will go “On the Job” and be briefed by a commanding officer in roll call before heading out to experience a “Day in the Life” of three patrol officers from different types of agencies in different parts of the country. In “Take the Case,” visitors can try solving one of four true crimes. Following steps in the investigation, visitors will gather evidence at a crime scene, analyze it in the “Forensics Lab,” and question witnesses until they solve the crime. Visitors will have the option of keeping track of their investigations through a personal digital assistant (PDA). With evidence in order, it will be time to make an arrest and enter a real containment cell in “Corrections.” Visitors can hear firsthand stories told by the officers who walk one of the toughest beats of all.

History of Law Enforcement Gallery:
Figure 2. A bullet-resistant vest owned by Al Capone, to be displayed in the museum
Image courtesy of the National Law Enforcement Museum
In the History of Law Enforcement gallery, visitors will walk through the famous eras of U.S. history, experiencing changing times through comprehensive exhibits, rare artifacts, and gripping accounts of the law enforcement profession’s defining moments. They can meet the United States’ “First Officers” sheriffs, constables, and night watchmen who often volunteered their time, working for little or no pay. Traveling through time to “Frontier Lawmen,” visitors will stand face to face with the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday outside the O.K. Corral. In “Gangsters and T-Men,” they will experience a booze smuggling bust in Wyoming during Prohibition and learn the story behind Al Capone’s conviction. An early bullet-resistant vest owned by Capone (figure 2) and other key artifacts will also be on display to help personalize the museum’s story of the Prohibition era. The “Public Enemies Theater” will present some of the most famous crimes of the 1920s and 1930s, such as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Heading up the investigation of this “crime of the century” was Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf of the New Jersey State Police, father of the legendary 1991 Gulf War leader, U.S. Army General H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. Museum visitors will see both sides of the protests of the 1960s and 1970s in “Keeping the Peace?” and learn how civil rights and Vietnam War protests helped shape policing today. The “World Beat” section will show how the role of U.S. law enforcement agencies has changed to combat crimes that often have their origins outside the country’s borders such as terrorism; narcotics, weapons, and human trafficking; and piracy. Visitors will be able to see how the country has changed before and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, particularly in terms of national security.

Reel to Real Gallery: No one can look at the way the law enforcement profession has changed over the years without also appreciating its impact on the news, movies, and television, as well as how these portrayals in the media have, in turn, affected the public’s perceptions. The way most people have come to understand, admire, and/or sometimes despise the law enforcement community has been, to some extent, shaped by the media and the entertainment industry.

In the Reel to Real gallery, visitors will be able to see whether they can tell the difference between pop culture and true law enforcement facts. Following the “Media Timeline” will lead them from the “penny press” and Keystone Kops to reality television shows such as COPS and 24-hour news networks. Then visitors can take a seat in the “Cop Critique Theater” and watch their old cop show buddies on the big screen, this time with real officers offering insightful and entertaining commentary about their fictional contemporaries in the background. Putting on a headset in the Motorola Dial 911 Emergency Call Center, visitors will experience the difficult, fast-paced, and critical role of a dispatcher and will see if they can ensure rapid and appropriate responses to desperate calls for help.

Hall of Remembrance: Honoring the fallen has been the mission of the NLEOMF since the first names were engraved on the blue-gray marble walls of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial almost 17 years ago. That mission will be extended in the museum’s Hall of Remembrance. This gallery will tell the stories behind the 18,000 names of the brave men and women engraved into the memorial walls, officers who died in the line of duty.

Museum visitors will have a chance to honor and remember these dedicated fallen heroes. They will also learn about the efforts of the police community to remember them, including the Police Unity Tour, whose members bike hundreds of miles to the memorial each year during National Police Week in May and honor their fallen comrades and raise money in support of the NLEOMF.

Changing Exhibitions Gallery: The fifth main gallery will be the DuPont Changing Exhibitions gallery. This gallery will host temporary exhibitions focusing on a myriad of topical and historical events and issues, innovative departments, and law enforcement leaders.

Function of the Museum

The museum as a whole will present an accurate, comprehensive depiction of the law enforcement community and help debunk some of the myths surrounding the profession. For instance, of the millions of contacts police have with citizens over a year, officers use or threaten to use force less than 2 percent of the time. And despite the number of gunfights in which most fictional officers are involved during an hour-long television drama, the average New York City police officer would have to work nearly 700 years before firing on and killing a criminal suspect.

With a fascinating collection of artifacts, cutting-edge interactive exhibits, and a location across the street from the memorial in the heart of D.C.’s busy cultural center, the museum is expected to attract 600,000 visitors each year. Approximately 125,000 of them are expected to be schoolchildren, helping to ensure that young people develop a strong and positive relationship with the law enforcement professionals who serve them. In fact, it is expected that the museum will be one of the profession’s most effective recruiting tools.

The museum will also serve as a public forum and research center. Discussions, lectures, and training sessions—for those inside and outside the law enforcement field—will be held in the museum’s state-of-the-art facilities. The museum will provide educational programs for school-age children and others and offer research opportunities in the areas of law enforcement history and safety.

Development of the museum’s exhibitions and programs has been guided by the Museum Advisory Committee, consisting of current and former law enforcement executives; representatives of law enforcement organizations; academics; and experts in the area of business, media, and museums.

Museum Progress

Preserving law enforcement history and telling the profession’s story in a high-tech, interactive space is no small task. Although Congress allotted federal land to build the museum in 2000, it was under the condition that the NLEOMF would raise the money to build, equip, and operate it. With this task at hand, the fund embarked on an $80 million capital campaign called “A Matter of Honor.” The NLEOMF has put together the National Honorary Campaign Committee, which is chaired by former U.S. presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton and includes seven former attorneys general of the United States, lawmakers, and celebrities.

Through generous donations from individuals, the law enforcement community, and corporations, the campaign has raised approximately $34 million to date.

The law enforcement community has been one of the museum’s most supportive donors, responsible for approximately one-third of the donations made to date. In fact, more than 300 law enforcement organizations have donated $1,000 or more. The IACP is among approximately three dozen law enforcement organizations that have donated at least $100,000 to the museum fund. The biggest donor to date is the Police Unity Tour, with a pledge of $5 million.

But there is still a lot to be done. To keep plans on track for the opening in 2011, NLEOMF staff are working hard raising money, designing exhibitions, collecting artifacts, and developing educational programs.

Figure 3. A .32-caliber Colt New Police Revolver, issued in 1896
Photo courtesy of the National Law Enforcement Museum
Exhibition design is nearly 100 percent complete, and building designs have been approved by the National Capital Planning Commission, the Commission of Fine Arts, and other public review agencies. Museum curators have amassed more than 6,000 historical and contemporary artifacts, including two of the first regulation guns issued to law enforcement officers in the United States. Until the latter part of the 19th century, police officers were expected to buy and choose their own guns, resulting in an often unreliable collection of weapons that were sometimes pawned when personal finances lagged. The museum’s .32-caliber Colt New Police Revolver (figure 3) was issued in 1896 by what would later become the New York City Police Department, in an effort endorsed by the president of the Board of Police Commissioners, Theodore Roosevelt. More recently, the museum is in the process of acquiring a Colt Model 1877 .38-caliber “Lightning” Revolver issued by the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., which is engraved on the gun’s backstrap.

Supporting the Museum

There are many ways the U.S. law enforcement community can help make the National Law Enforcement Museum a reality. The museum is privately funded, so donations from individuals and groups are encouraged and appreciated. Anyone interested can make an online donation at or call the museum’s toll-free donation line at 866-446-NLEM.

In addition to monetary donations, the museum staff is in need of artifacts and items that reflect law enforcement history. Examples of possible artifact donations include old uniforms, equipment, badges, and items from pop culture.

The museum also needs volunteers for the Law Enforcement Ambassadors program. Ambassadors serve as advocates who help raise money in their communities and increase awareness of the museum.

U.S. law enforcement officers also have a unique opportunity to be a part of the museum itself, thanks to a program called Officer Roll Call. This vital program will give law enforcement officers—past and present—the chance to display their photographs and tell their own stories. Visitors will be able to search the Officer Roll Call at several interactive computer screens located in the museum’s main concourse. This registry will ensure that every officer who has served will have the opportunity to create his or her own special place within the museum. Officers can register for Officer Roll Call at

A Place for Heroes

The National Law Enforcement Museum promises to be a world-renowned institution of law enforcement education and information. Its interactive exhibits, historic artifacts, and diverse educational programs will prove to be as extraordinary and unique as the law enforcement profession and the people who serve in it.

In a world where sometimes the good guys catch the heat while the bad guys catch the movie deal, it is reassuring to know that there is a place to pay tribute to true American heroes—a place where good cops will be recognized and where people like Elmer Irey and Eliot Ness will always top guys like Al Capone. ■


1“What Elmer Did,” Time>, December 6, 1948,,9171,853607-1,00.html (accessed March 19, 2008).
2“Famous Cases: Alphonse Capone, aka. Al, Scarface,” U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation Web site, (accessed March 19, 2008).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 5, May 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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