Inside the American Police

Most people never look past the gravity-defying police car. The one stuck, Spiderman-like, high on the faaade of the three-story building on the northeast corner of Biscayne Boulevard and 38th Street. Tens of thousands drive past it every day, their expressions betraying varying reactions -- amusement, puzzlement, vague contempt. But as the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum recedes in the rear-view, so for the most part does the urge to explore it.

Those who do venture inside are treated to an encounter with a RoboCop mannequin, who, despite his menacing appearance, incessantly utters a cheery "RoboCop would like to welcome you to the Police Hall of Fame. Please take your time and enjoy your visit." A tour of the museum affords "educational" stops at the electric chair exhibit (where visitors are invited to strap themselves in and hook up the electrodes) and the heady environs of the replica of San Quentin's gas chamber ("Take your time and enjoy yourself"), not to mention a few moments' gawking at the bullet-riddled, bloodstained section of wall dubbed the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre Exhibit." And a gander at the replica jail cell, stocks, and other punishment paraphernalia, including a cousin of the cane that whacked Michael Fay's posterior in Singapore.

And, finally, a hushed sojourn at the Memorial, a high-ceiling room where taped organ music plays eerily, the name of every American cop slain since 1960 is affixed to the marble walls, and a sarcophagus centerpiece bears the inscription "To the unknown peace officer, known only to God."

Of course, in the flower-draped Tomb of the Unknown Peace Officer, there's no body. Still, as a paean to tackiness and kitsch, the Hall is worth the six-dollar admission charge (three dollars for kids; just a buck for police officers, active or retired).

But its operators have higher aspirations. Directors of a network of tax-exempt nonprofit groups that have raised more than $15 million since 1990, they portray the Police Hall of Fame as a mecca for American cops, sacred ground where blue knights can pay homage to their fallen colleagues and revel in the spirit of public order.

In that endeavor, the institution's success is arguable. Law enforcement officers, leaders of professional police groups, and experts in charity fundraising have raised myriad criticisms. They say the Hall, much like the plastic Eternal Flame that glows Halloween-orange on the tiny patch of grass out front, is a hollow promise. Visitors, for one thing, aren't informed of the existence of another shrine to fallen cops in Washington, D.C., which is jointly maintained by a dozen police groups and open to the public, free of charge. Nor are they explicitly told that millions of dollars raised by the nonprofits that run the Hall are funneled not to worthy causes but to contracted fundraisers and a for-profit management company created by the charities' founder, Gerald Arenberg.

Through his public relations consultant, Paul Scott Abbott, Gerald Arenberg declined to be interviewed for this story. Abbott says that his client, now "retired from all paid positions" at age 65, could not respond to any questions directly, owing to what the consultant says is a painful degenerative nerve condition. "He has bad days and worse days. He's not doing well," the consultant explains.

The American Police Hall of Fame and Museum is jointly owned by two nonprofit groups, the American Federation of Police (AFP) and the National Association of Chiefs of Police (NACOP), both of which Arenberg founded and ran as executive vice president. Arenberg began his law enforcement career in 1950, as a deputy in the Cook County, Illinois, sheriff's department. After a four-year stint there, he moved to the tiny Chicago suburb of Golf, where he eventually became chief of the three-man police department. One day in 1955, he was directing traffic when a drunk driver slammed into him at 50 miles per hour. According to Abbott, Arenberg spent many painful months in a body cast; later, ambulatory but on crutches, the idea came to him to build a shrine to police officers.

At the time, Arenberg was working at the offices of the National Police Officers Association of America (NPOAA), an organization he had co-founded in 1955 with a Chicago detective named Frank Schira. By 1961 NPOAA was growing into a full-time venture. After Chief Arenberg was named executive secretary that same year, he turned in his shield and moved to Venice, Florida, to open a national headquarters for the group. Still determined to build his shrine, he persuaded the General Development Corporation to donate land for the project in exchange for an NPOAA endorsement of a GDC housing development.

Abbott says Arenberg left NPOAA and relocated to Miami in 1966 "following a change in management." While the PR consultant does not elaborate about what prompted the change, newspaper stories at that time indicate that the NPOAA had come under fire from other police groups for selling emblems and insignia that could easily be mistaken for official police gear. Arenberg, the NPOAA's board reportedly ascertained, was catering to police groupies just to raise money. So they fired him, with the full support of his onetime partner, Frank Schira.

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Jason Vest