The museum, at 444 E St. NW in Judiciary Square opposite the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, launched with an opening ceremony Thursday morning featuring comments by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), former attorney general John Ashcroft, former D.C. police chief Charles Ramsey and a taped message from former president George W. Bush. The $103 million project was 20 years in the making, from conceptualization in 1998 by memorial chief executive Craig Floyd, to deeding of the land by Congress in 2000, to years of fundraising, design approval and finally construction in 2016. The Police Unity Tour, an annual police bike-riding fundraiser, contributed $23 million to the museum, said David Brant, the museum’s executive director.
At the Thursday ceremony, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein told a large audience of police officials that police officers are more professional and sophisticated than ever. “In this museum,” Rosenstein said, “their stories will be told: stories about courage, stories about honor, stories about sacrifice. True stories that remind us never to take public safety for granted.“ Actor and famed film detective Clint Eastwood applauded along with the crowd.
“We want the public to get a glimpse of law enforcement in a way they typically don’t,” said Brant, a former Miami police officer and ex-director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. “This has to be a resource for the public, about law enforcement but not intended to be just for law enforcement. A lot of the public doesn’t know that [Memorial] wall exists, with 21,541 names on it. They will have a greater appreciation of what law enforcement means to this country. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything that happens. But law enforcement serves a critical role in our day-to-day life.”
And so the daunting task of capturing the full range of “law enforcement” is approached by providing not only the expected historical artifacts — J. Edgar Hoover’s desk, the rifle used by the D.C. snipers, a hat swiped from Osama bin Laden’s compound — but also interactive displays on a surprisingly wide range of professions. Spend a day in the life of a prison guard. Ride the boat with a marine officer. Sit in the interrogation room with a detective.
Buttons and quizzes and choices abound. You can put on a dispatcher’s headset and listen to a 911 call, then decide how to respond to the caller and what resources to send to the call. You can pick up a real (modified) gun and test out a police simulator with various nerve-rattling scenarios. (When that school shooter suddenly comes around the corner with a rifle, you are not going to hit him.) You can work through the evidence of an actual group of serial bank robbers in Washington to determine what will work at trial. You can examine, closely if you dare, the various wounds described in a medical examiner’s autopsy.
Heroism is lauded, beginning with the actual U.S. Park Police helicopter used to rescue passengers from the Potomac River after an Air Florida plane crash into the 14th Street Bridge in January 1982, and a room is dedicated to those who died in the line of duty. Mementos left at the Memorial wall have been preserved. “Dear Daddy, How are you? Do you like Heaven?” reads one heartbreaking letter from a 9-year-old girl to her father. “P.S. I love you very much.”
Hot-button issues aren’t avoided, but they aren’t emphasized. The police shooting and subsequent rioting in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, has its own display, and some of Hoover’s many missteps as FBI director are noted. There is a changing exhibits gallery that focuses on community trust-building initiatives by police in five cities, and asks visitors to write down their suggestions for improving relations with police. Of 20,000 artifacts in the museum’s collection, less than 900 are on display Brant said, so presentations will change.
The museum also has a 111-seat theater that will show a 20-minute orientation film on the history of law enforcement up to current issues in policing. Brant said the museum plans to use the theater for programs on various hot topics, such as the opioid crisis. “We’re not going to avoid anything,” Brant said. “Whether it’s Hoover’s history, or the impact of Ferguson, if there is a relevant discussion we wanted to host, of course we would.”