Law Enforcement Museum Touts Heroism, Buries the Darker Side

Riding along doesn’t come cheap.

The price of admission at the National Law Enforcement Museum (NLEM) runs $21.95, unless you’re a law enforcement officer or a member of the military, in which case $17.56 gets you through the door. But once inside, no matter what you paid, you can immerse yourself in the law-enforcement world — from the police officer’s point of view.

DC’s newest museum, which opened in October, presents itself at ground level as an unimposing glass entrance kiosk that is dwarfed by the two venerable behemoths on either side, the neoclassical DC Court of Appeals to the south and Montgomery Meigs’ ruddy brick National Building Museum, the giant to the north. But at the NLEM the action is underground; in fact, all of the exhibits are contained in one compact but fully packed gallery.

The NLEM was preceded by and complements the National Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial, which was completed in 1991 and sits just outside the museum. Those who have visited the memorial are familiar with its bronze sculptures of adult lions watching over their cubs, like police officers guarding innocent civilians. Its curving walls inscribed with the names of fallen officers serves as the police profession’s answer to the Vietnam War Memorial, only one that adds names on a regular basis.

Inside the new museum, the theme of self-sacrifice continues with the Hall of Remembrance, featuring the photographs of fallen officers and mementoes left at the memorial. The narrative of the self-sacrificing “peace officer” continues through the orientation film that visitors are recommended to see as the museum’s first stop.

In the film, the museum betrays a sliver of self-reflection, acknowledging that police have not always been regarded by their communities as protectors. The first police in the South, it notes, were slave patrols. Flashing forward to the present, former DC Police Chief Charles Ramsey intones that somewhere the police lost the “human part of the job” and that we “can’t ignore we have an issue.” What issue? Well, it doesn’t exactly say. But it does assert that the police have learned their lesson and have shifted from focusing on arrest totals to “community engagement” — and here we see images of officers among their happy constituents, immersed in the lives of their neighborhoods from small towns to New York City.

The NLEM wants you to like the police, really it does, so much so that it wants you to see the profession through the eyes of the officers. While the museum has, for a small facility, no shortage of artifacts from the history of law enforcement — uniforms, weapons (including those used by criminals), J. Edgar Hoover’s office furniture, even a squad car and helicopter — its focus is on interaction. Once you pass through the doors, YOU are the police officer. You are invited to engage in solving crimes, interrogating suspects, examining forensic evidence. There is even a Police Academy–style training simulator in which visitors are given realistic-looking service weapons and placed before a video screen showing a variety of high-stress situations an officer might face. Do you try to talk the suspect down? Draw your weapon? Shoot to kill?

It is a smart strategy, if the aim is to send you out the door with a warm feeling toward the police profession. No one can deny policing is often stressful and dangerous, and the exhibits are designed to make sure you don’t forget it. And they do so in slick, high-tech style.

Yet some exhibits in the gallery betray a realization that police-community relations have sometimes ranged from strained to downright hostile — as far back as the 1960s, for example, with a protest poster shouting out “We Demand an End to Police Brutality Now!” Part of the exhibit on police history acknowledges the infamous killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in Ferguson, MO. But the descriptive panels underplay the background of the incident — the hostile police-community relations steeped in a legacy of racism — in favor of how local officials fixed things afterward. With the transfer of control of security operations from local officials to Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, an African American, the use of SWAT trucks and riot armor were discontinued, the exhibit tells us; and Johnson, who “grew up in the area . . . walked with protestors and talked with demonstrators.” Johnson is quoted as saying, “When I see a young lady cry because of fear of this uniform, that’s a problem. We’ve got to fix that.” And fix it they did, we are told, when the following year Andre Anderson became the first African-American police chief in Ferguson.

Elsewhere, exhibits acknowledge that the police have not exactly been beloved in such cities as Chicago, Cleveland and Camden, N.J. But, we are told, fixes are mostly in progress: Camden disbanded its force and created a county-wide police department stressing de-escalation training and foot and bike patrols that have led to falling crime and are “earning back Camden’s trust.” In Cleveland, following “several high-profile police use of force incidents,” a combination of a Justice Department consent decree and “a strong coalition of non-profits and federal, state and local agencies work together to make Cleveland safer.” Chicago has yet to reach its happy ending, alas, following the 2015 shooting of Laquan McDonald; the display tells us only that “the protests continue now with calls to stop the violence that racks the city.” But overall, the message is that the police learn their lessons and address the problems, leading us back to the message of the introductory movie: Whatever the problems are, the police can fix them, if they haven’t already.

One can’t expect a museum to cover every aspect of its topic, and for the NLEM to give more than a nod to charges of police brutality would upset its narrative of law enforcement as a noble profession. It also matters who is paying the bills — besides the visitors ponying up their $21.95. Motorola, which sells car radios and walkie-talkies to police forces, contributed $18 million to the museum (the full official name of the museum is the National Law Enforcement Museum at the Motorola Solutions Foundation Building. Another corporate donor is Glock, the firearms manufacturer. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents prison guards, kicked in $1 million for an exhibit on their occupation. On other hand, for the museum to completely ignore the darker side of policing would open it to valid accusations of being a propaganda vehicle rather than a true museum, to which it skirts close enough as is.

The pro-police message of NLEM demands a countervailing narrative, one that makes more than a brief pass at the abuses of law-enforcement officers. This narrative would highlight the role of police in harassing and incarcerating blacks in the Jim Crow South to legally re-enslave them in chain gangs; the sordid history of police as strikebreakers; the willful failure of police not only to stop lynchings but even participate in them. And there is the role many police departments play today: as armed forces occupying mostly low-income and minority neighborhoods.

Perhaps a second museum is in order — the National Museum on Fighting Police Brutality? That would be an expensive undertaking. But even without going that far, the counternarrative is already being written, in the challenges to the killings of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner and the countless other victims of police violence; in the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and its many allies.

So if you go to the new museum, go with a critical eye and an inquiring mind. And a credit card or plenty of cash.

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