An exhibit funded by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association shows a video about a day in the life of a prison guard, but leaves out the fact that America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. (Sadie Dingfelder/Sadie Dingfelder)
Features reporter

I’m on a factory floor where a worker has taken his manager hostage. Through a window, I see the worker brandishing a gun while chasing his manager back and forth across a small room.

“Sir! Put down the firearm,” my partner shouts. I am frozen, useless — reluctant to shoot, even at pixels on a screen. My partner — a Marine in his real life — shoots through the window, killing the gunman and freeing the hostage.

The video ends. “Good job,” says our trainer, a middle-aged man who also trains actual police officers. “If that had gone on another six seconds, he would have turned his gun on the hostage and then on you.”


One exhibit has visitors match damaged skulls with murder weapons, including a gun, a knife and a bat. (Sadie Dingfelder/Sadie Dingfelder)

I’m at the National Law Enforcement Museum, in the same kind of simulator that police academies use. The simulator is just one of dozens of ways the museum gives visitors the opportunity to “walk in the shoes” of various law enforcement professionals. Over the course of three hours, I answer (simulated) 911 calls, sit in on a real-life (video-recorded) interrogation and attempt to match fabric samples from a (simulated) murder scene.

Though it only opened in October (and charges a hefty admission of $21.95 for adults and $14.95 for kids under 12), this museum has clearly found its audience. On a recent Sunday, the place was buzzing — largely, it seemed, with people who work in law enforcement and their families. I was surprised to see so many kids there. Call me a snowflake, but I found a lot of the content in the museum disturbing. While a few exhibits — including the police training simulator — have “mature content” warnings, the floor is mostly open for all ages to explore. That includes a kiosk where you’re asked to match realistic models of dented skulls with the weapon that did the damage — a gun, a bat, a chef’s knife, an ax and a socket wrench.


A decorative column features repeating patterns of police badges, as well as guns and other weapons. (Sadie Dingfelder/Sadie Dingfelder)

I was particularly stressed out by a realistic two-story facade of a home that comes alive every 16 minutes with a disturbing tableau of domestic violence: A video projection shows a man threatening a woman, chasing her from the kitchen to the dining room to upstairs, where he finally traps her in a bathroom. A heavily armed SWAT team creeps into the house and hits the man with a stun gun — though when the actor crumpled to the ground, I thought he’d been shot. He stands up again and is escorted out of the house — a happy ending, I suppose.

The museum’s focus on the dramatic and violent aspects of law enforcement seems to spill into glamorization at times. For instance, one decorative column features a repeating pattern of police badges alongside weapons, including billy clubs, pistols and submachine guns. This pillar is all the more jarring given its location, near a small exhibit about the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, in Ferguson, Mo. The exhibit text emphasizes that the white officer wasn’t charged and focuses on subsequent attempts to repair the relationship between the Ferguson community and police.


A small exhibit about the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown emphasizes that the white officer wasn’t charged. (Sadie Dingfelder/Sadie Dingfelder)

This struck me as a missed educational opportunity. It wouldn’t take much space to mention the nationwide protests that followed the shooting, or the continuing problem of police violence in black communities. (Since 2015, black people — who make up 13 percent of the U.S. population — accounted for 23 percent of those fatally shot by police, and 36 percent of those who were unarmed when they were killed.)

Additionally, a large exhibit about a day in the life of a corrections officer (funded by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association) didn’t give any larger context — including the fact that America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, at roughly 700 per 100,000 people, or the fact that black people make up a vastly disproportionate fraction of this group.


A two-story facade comes alive with a video showing a SWAT team responding to apparent domestic violence. (Sadie Dingfelder/Sadie Dingfelder)

These missing facts are a conspicuous absence throughout the museum — they are, for instance, the elephant in a room full of exhibits on community policing and in the museum’s introductory video, which shows officers working hand in hand with community activists.

Even the police training simulation seems to offer a rebuttal to unspoken criticism of police by showing just how difficult it is to decide when to shoot, and whom. As my trainer said, “We make the best decisions we can … but everybody’s going to be able to armchair-quarterback the next day. And unfortunately, that’s what throws everything off.”

It’s valuable to consider the perspective of police officers — and to give ordinary people the chance to walk in their shoes. I know I have a newfound appreciation for their difficult jobs. But until it starts offering the larger context, the National Law Enforcement Museum leans more toward propaganda than education.

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