Tuesday, January 16, 2018

From the Museum Collection — Al Capone’s Bullet-Proof Vest

Bullet-proof vest worn by Al Capone, Collection of
the National Law Enforcement Museum, 2007.139.1.

January also marks the birth and death of one of America’s most notorious gangsters. Al Capone was born on January 17, 1899 and became a central focus of federal law enforcement during Prohibition.

Two federal agencies began working to bring Capone to justice. Eliot Ness was a Prohibition Bureau agent charged with the task. His team raided illegal stills and significantly slowed the cash flow of Capone’s boot-legging operations. Meanwhile, I.R.S. Agent Mike Malone went undercover as a wise guy from Philadelphia to infiltrate Capone’s gang, but the actual take-down of Al Capone is credited to a quiet I.R.S agent named Frank Wilson.

Wilson was one of several I.R.S. agents who were investigating Capone’s financial dealings. By some estimates, Capone raked in $60 million in illegal liquor sales during Prohibition. Combined with another $25 million from gambling establishments and $20 million from vice and other illegal activities, Capone, became of the country’s richest gangsters.

Using forensic accounting, Wilson and his team were able to gather sufficient evidence to indict Capone on charges of tax evasion. Capone was convicted and sentenced to eleven years in prison, most of it served in Alcatraz. After eight years, Capone was released from prison in ill health from the effects of syphilis. He suffered a stroke and died January 25, 1947 at the age of 48.

A bullet-proof vest once worn by the notorious gangster is part of the National Law Enforcement Museum’s collection, and will be on display in the History Beat exhibit when the museum opens this fall.

Monday, January 15, 2018

History's Blotter: Prohibition and the Wickersham Commission

Photo credit: Library of Congress

“Prohibition is an awful flop. We like it. It can't stop what it's meant to stop.
We like it. It's left a trail of graft and slime. It don't prohibit worth a dime.”*

January marks two important dates in law enforcement history. The 18th Amendment, also known as the Prohibition Amendment, went into effect on January 16, 1920. Just over a decade later on January 7, 1931, the Wickersham Commission released its much-awaited report on Prohibition and crime.

Prohibition did not ban consumption of alcohol, only its sale, transport, and manufacture. Advocates hoped that a dry country would mark a return to family values and decrease crime. Instead, crime—particularly organized crime—increased.

President Hoover was looking for a way to enforce Prohibition and curb organized crime when he appointed the 11-member Wickersham Commission. Officially known as the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, it was spear-headed by former Attorney General George W. Wickersham and contained some of the most noted names in law enforcement at the time. The primary author of the Commission’s final report was August Vollmer, widely considered the father of modern law enforcement for bringing science into police work and his emphasis on criminal justice reform.

After two years, the Commission published its findings. In the 14-volume report, members were unable to reach a consensus on the efficacy of Prohibition. In addition, the report assessed police interrogation tactics, corruption in police ranks, and problems communities faced when enforcing laws related to Prohibition. The report criticized police for what it called a “general failure” to make arrests in many murders and bank robberies. President Hoover noted that while the report indicated enforcement of Prohibition was ineffective, the commission did not unanimously favor repealing the 18th Amendment. Nonetheless, the 18th Amendment was repealed almost two years later.

*From New York World Columnist Franklin P. Adams’ poem on the Wickersham Commission’s report.

From the Collection

Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, 2009.45.19
In the mid-1990s, church arsons were on the rise in the American South. A number of suspicious fires at churches with predominantly African American parishioners pointed to possible hate crimes. In June of 1996, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was investigating suspicious fires at 37 churches in the South that took place over an 18- month span.

Parishioners and law enforcement sought new ways to raise awareness of the problem and bring the arsonists to justice. Paper fans such as this one were sent to churches around the country. The fan provides a toll-free number for people to report suspicious activity and warns potential arsonists of the 10 to 20-year prison sentence for those convicted of setting the fires.

Message from the Executive Director

David L. Brant, Executive Director
National Law Enforcement Museum
The National Law Enforcement Museum is just months away from opening its doors. When that happens this fall, it will be the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of planning and persistence. This long journey will have been well worth the wait. The Museum’s befitting location in the Judiciary Square neighborhood in our nation’s capital marks the first time a national museum dedicated to telling the story of American law enforcement will have a permanent home.

Within the walls of the Museum’s beautiful and contemporary exterior, intriguing objects from our collection of more than 20,000 artifacts, interactive exhibits and educational workshops will appeal to a wide range of visitors, including citizens and those currently serving or with histories of serving in the law enforcement profession. More importantly, the Museum will provide a platform for constructive dialogue to help strengthen relationships shared by law enforcement and the communities they serve.

As a former law enforcement professional, the creation of this Museum makes me proud. I’ve been on the job less than a year, but I can tell you the feedback I’m getting about the Museum is overwhelmingly positive. The Museum offers a meaningful opportunity to help citizens understand the role of law enforcement by providing a ”walk in the shoes” experience in the history of law enforcement, its current practices and what the future may hold. I want to thank you for accompanying us on this long journey and I look forward to seeing you when the Museum opens this fall.


Dave Brant
Executive Director, National Law Enforcement Museum

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

History Time Capsules: A Window into the Evolution of Law Enforcement

When the new National Law Enforcement Museum opens its doors next fall, visitors will get an in-depth understanding of how American law enforcement has evolved over the years through a series of time capsules along the Museum’s south wall.

Summer Police Uniform Helmet ca. 1880, Collection of the
National Law Enforcement Museum, 2006.488.76
History Time Capsules will provide snapshots of different eras in American law enforcement history, from its earliest inception to present day. Some of the oldest artifacts in the Museum’s collection are housed in the first capsule, which covers the influence of English jurisprudence, or the philosophy of law, on the origins of American law enforcement, including a Sheriff’s writ from 1703.

Visitors will also discover the development of municipal police forces during the 19th century, including early uniforms, equipment and some of the first department-issued firearms. Some of the greatest stories from the Wild West involved law enforcement too, like New Mexico Sheriff Pat Garrett who killed Billy the Kid, and Deputy U.S. Marshal Louis Eichoff who tracked down the infamous Dalton gang.

The time capsules will follow law enforcement history through the professionalization of the field, featuring early training materials and methods for standardizing policing. Visitors will see what it was like for the officers who were tasked with enforcing prohibition, including the one and only Eliot Ness of the Untouchables fame and his personal credentials. IRS Agent Mike Malone’s gun will help tell the story of how he infiltrated Al Capone’s network, leading to his eventual arrest. The time capsules also capture social changes that took place during the Civil Rights era; the clashes between federal and local agencies and the overzealous tactics employed by some of the local law enforcement departments. In addition, more women were entering law enforcement and beginning to take on roles that had never been allowed previously.

Indian Police Belt, Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, 2013.19.6
The capsules also capture the traumatic events of the 9/11 terror attacks and how they changed law enforcement, in ways that still impact people today. Compelling objects will represent stories of rescue, including a flashlight and safety helmet worn by Port Authority of New York & New Jersey officers as they sought to save lives.

The History Time Capsules exhibit is just one of the many ways the National Law Enforcement Museum will educate, fascinate and engage visitors when the doors open next fall.

Monday, December 11, 2017

History Blotter: Arresting the Cincinnati Strangler

"They were terrified. The locksmiths and the hardware stores couldn't keep locks in stock.”

In December 1966, residents of Cincinnati, Ohio were frightened. Over the course of more than a year, a serial killer had raped and strangled seven women, most of them elderly. The first murder took place on December 2, 1965. On December 9, 1966, police found the body of Lula Kerrick in the elevator of her apartment building. Her death by strangulation resembled that of other victims; however, Kerrick had not been sexually assaulted.

By now the serial murders had terrorized the city. A police hotline received 800 tips per day. Officers checked out more than 15,000 cars and Halloween trick or treating was moved to daylight hours so residents could be safely in their homes by dark.

The Cincinnati (OH) Police Department assigned a special squad of 22 men to investigate the murders. They quickly logged over 100 hours of overtime and investigated more than 1000 leads. One of those leads included reports of a brown and cream-colored car seen near the locations of several of the murders. A man jotted down the license plate of a car as an unfamiliar man fled his apartment building.

Posteal Laskey, Jr.
Acting on that tip, Cincinnati police arrested Posteal Laskey, Jr. just four hours after they found Lula Kerrick’s body. The 29-year old former cab driver was only charged with the murder of one victim, Barbara Rose Bowman. Police determined Laskey stole a cab and picked up the 31-year old Bowman. Police said Bowman was struck by the cab, then fatally stabbed and strangled when she tried to get away. Several witnesses indicated they’d seen Bowman get into the cab Laskey was driving.

Cincinnati Patrolman Frank Sefton was the first officer to arrive at the scene of Bowman’s murder. ''They were terrified,'' Sefton said of the public after Bowman's killing. ''The locksmiths and the hardware stores couldn't keep locks in stock. There was a huge demand for them. ... Because of the hysteria, everybody was absolutely petrified.'' 1

Laskey’s arrest sparked racial tensions in Cincinnati. Laskey was African-American; all of the victims were white. Five witnesses stated Laskey was at home at the time of the Bowman murder, but much of the evidence against Laskey was based on witnesses who placed him in the vicinity of the murders as well as the description and license plate of the car. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made a special trip to the city to plead for calm.  Hundreds of National Guardsmen were deployed to Cincinnati as protests became violent. Police were certain they had the right suspect, citing that the murders stopped after his arrest; Laskey’s family was convinced he was a scapegoat.

Laskey was sentenced to die in the electric chair but his execution was commuted to life in prison when the death penalty was abolished in Ohio. Laskey remained incarcerated until his death in 2007. He was buried on the grounds of the prison.

1 From the The Cincinnati Post, March 1, 2002

Secrets of the Museum

A year ago today, National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund President and CEO Craig W. Floyd braved frigid temperatures to complete a special mission.

Carrying a wooden box strapped to his back, he climbed 65 feet below the surface, down several ladders and into the construction site of the new National Law Enforcement Museum. Protected inside the box were rubbings containing the names of fallen officers from the Memorial.

The rubbings were part of a project from National Police Week in 2014. Visitors were asked to make extra rubbings of their loved one’s names so they could be placed in a capsule and embedded into the Museum.  Hundreds of rubbings were collected. On December 15, 2016, these treasured rubbings were carefully placed and sealed in the Museum’s foundation beneath the Museum’s Hall of Remembrance.

Visitors to the Memorial are encouraged to use the paper and pencils provided in the directory stands to make rubbings of fallen officers’ names. The Visitors Center & Store features a number of frames and holders for displaying rubbings from the Memorial.

As a member of the Honor Alliance, your benefits include a lifetime membership to the National Law Enforcement Museum, which opens next fall.  Share this valuable experience by purchasing an individual or family gift membership for a fellow active duty or retired law enforcement officer for just $100.