The exhibition hews to the mainstream consensus about the balance of education and entertainment, large objects and interactive experiences. Hanging in the main atrium is a helicopter (used by the National Park Service to rescue victims of the 1982 Air Florida crash into the Potomac River), and on the lower level is a full-size prison cell from the Lorton Correctional Complex. These objects are both decorative and talismanic, filling up space without adding much to the educational mission, yet representative of basic law-enforcement functions, including service, surveillance and incarceration. But there are also exhibits that test the visitor’s knowledge of forensic practice, an audio booth that invites participants to field imaginary 911 calls, video kiosks giving an insider’s view of daily life as a cop, and a small theater that deals with the pervasive presence of police in entertainment and pop culture.
But it isn’t just the visitor experience that’s professional. The larger mission of the museum is to advertise the professionalism of law enforcement. Upstairs, on the plaza outside the entrance, is the 1991 National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, which honors sacrifice in service of the profession, while downstairs, the museum, run by the same organization, details what that professionalism entails.
Joining a memorial and a museum is complicated. The memorial function is emotional, and essentially uncritical. A museum, by contrast, must be independent, objective, dispassionate and critical. The law enforcement memorial, one of the simplest and most appealing of the smaller memorials in Washington, speaks directly to those who have lost, or fear losing, a loved one. It also aims to elicit feelings of gratitude among the larger public for police service. But the museum is obliged to deal with harder facts, including the troubling rate at which police in the United States kill people, far higher than in other industrialized countries. It now numbers about three people a day, or more than 1,000 a year, with a disproportionate number young people of color. According to the Pew Research Center, only 33 percent of African Americans believe the police use force appropriately, a far lower number than among white Americans.
The museum tries to grapple with the larger question of public trust and the anger of communities that have suffered the brunt of police violence. There is mention of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which led to protests there and across the country. There is a faded red-and-white “We Demand an End to Police Violence Now” sign from decades ago in a gallery that features a timeline of historical artifacts. And much of the introductory film deals with police efforts to gain trust in communities that have every reason to be profoundly suspicious of state-sanctioned violence.
At these moments, the tone of professionalism becomes so measured and lawyerly that alert visitors may question the museum’s sincerity. Text panels acknowledge criticism of police brutality only to deflect it. A display about the drug wars, which have contributed to this country’s astronomically high rates of incarceration, says, “Officers around the country have the difficult task of enforcing drug laws.” But the same text panel avoids mention of the impact on communities of color, the breakup of families, and the inconsistency in enforcement and sentencing of drug offenders.
Professionalism can mean a code of conduct and a commitment to service, but it’s also about the rhetorical control of discourse about a discipline or calling. Who is allowed to speak and who isn’t? Who can question a doctor, or a lawyer, or a cop? Mostly missing from the museum’s measured coverage of the darker side of policing are the actual voices of those who have been subject to police brutality. Their concerns are neatly packaged, acknowledged and then placed in the balance with police concerns about officer safety and the difficulty of enforcing the law. But the anger, the raw rage one saw on the streets of Ferguson and in cities nationwide — that isn’t allowed into the mix. We hear from good people who are working to improve the trust between cops and communities of color. But we don’t hear directly from the mother who lost her son, the child who lost his parents, the grieving spouses of those gunned down unnecessarily and sometimes in cold blood.
On a recent visit, the museum was mostly empty. It has been struggling since it opened a year ago, and has had difficulty attracting audiences and paying off the bonds it secured to build the space. Part of the problem is probably the hefty admission fee. But the museum may also be suffering from the same crisis of confidence in law enforcement that is apparent generally throughout much of this country.
There’s no easy way to fix that, but there is an obvious path to putting the museum on a better footing. And that is to aim for a higher standard of independence and objectivity, while making the museum a center for the open, honest and painful conversations that it is so far having only in a very buttoned-down, cautious and halfhearted way. Among the messages the designers and curators have tried to stress is that the police are alert to the concerns of citizens and working on new ways to build trust. The museum might follow that same path and become a center for rethinking the relationship between law enforcement officers and the people who pay their salaries.