On the job

New museum puts visitors in law enforcement’s shoes

Created date

December 13th, 2018
Two men point to law enforcement documents on a wall.

The National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington, D.C. opened to the public in October 2018. Inside, visitors will find an artifacts and displays that honor those in uniform, educating the public on the sacrifices and dangers of police officer.

The nation’s capital has its fair share of museums, and this past fall, Washington, D.C., has unveiled one more. In October 2018, the National Law Enforcement Museum opened its doors, introducing the public to the heroic and dangerous world of policing in the United States.

Located adjacent to the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington’s Judiciary Square, the state-of-the-art museum took nearly two decades to complete.

Developers acquired the land for the mainly underground facility back in 2000 under President Bill Clinton. For the next 18 years, the project went through a journey of planning, fundraising, and city and architectural reviews.

On October 13, officials celebrated the grand opening of the first and only national museum wherein the exhibits honor and celebrate the daily lives of law enforcement personnel.

‘Walk in the shoes’ experience

“Our mission is to tell the story of American law enforcement, the history of how policing started in the United States, and the story of where it is today,” explains David Brant, the museum’s executive director. “We want to provide visitors with a ‘walk in the shoes’ experience, and by that I mean, if you have little to no knowledge or connectivity to law enforcement, you can step into this museum and, in a realistic, interactive, and immersive atmosphere, get a feel for what the profession involves on a daily basis.”

Designed as a soaring, well-lit open area, the 57,000-square-foot facility’s sprawling exhibit floor is three stories underground. Inside, visitors walk the space with an actual police helicopter suspended overhead, surrounded by over 150 years of law enforcement history.

Currently, the museum’s collection hovers at around 21,000 artifacts, not including those on loan from other institutions: items such as the Beltway Snipers’ car and the evidence from the case; Eliot Ness’s Treasury Department credentials; J. Edgar Hoover’s desk; Al Capone’s vest; the red phone that received the first-ever 911 call on February 16, 1968; and the body camera and officer uniforms associated with the controversial Ferguson, Mo., shooting. At any given time, curators have some 800 pieces on display.

Interactive exhibits

But perhaps most powerful, according to Brant, are the museum’s interactive exhibits. Two of these, in particular, have proven very effective in conveying the challenges and complexities inherent to policing.

The 911 Emergency Ops exhibit, for one, highlights the important role of the 911 dispatcher and enables visitors to experience the high-stress task they perform every day.   

“To call 911 and know that help is on the way is at the heart of the relationship citizens have with law enforcement,” says Brant. “Dispatchers play a crucial part in making sure first responders get where they need to be as quickly as possible.”

Another interactive simulator puts the visitor in any of the more than 1,000 scenarios in which police officers find themselves each time they respond to a call—everything from traffic stops, bank robberies, and domestic violence to drunk and disorderly citizens. And like police, the person in the simulator has to make split-second decisions, some of which may involve the use of his sidearm.

“A lot of people go through the simulator and come out saying, ‘Wow, that was really tough,’” says Brant. “Because of such exhibits, they go home thinking about how significant and difficult law enforcement is.

“In short, they possess a broader appreciation for the job and for those who do it.”

They also gain a sense of the great sacrifice that so many individuals have made while protecting the community. Just across the street from the museum stands the National Law Enforcement Memorial’s wall, which bears the names of the 21,541 police officers who have died in the line of duty since 1791.

Sadly, new inscriptions appear each year, along with associated memorial displays in the museum’s Hall of Remembrance. Here, patrons can stop at kiosks to search any of the officers listed on the memorial wall and read their stories.

“Our goal is to use these historical and interactive exhibits as an educational platform and a source of dialogue that will promote a healthy exchange of ideas and a deeper understanding of police work,” says Brant. “In the end, we hope this will strengthen the bonds between law enforcement and the community at large.”