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"Take the Case" exhibit walks visitors through everything from DNA sampling to forensic entomology.

National Law Enforcement Museum

Field review by the editors.

Washington, DC

Nearly 20 years passed between the day the National Law Enforcement Museum was approved by President Clinton and the day it opened to the public on October 13, 2018. According to executive director Dave Brant, that long delay was a good thing.

"Twenty years of planning made it a better museum," he said. That may sound like lemons-into-lemonade logic, but there's no question that the delay gave the museum more advanced technology to put into its exhibits, as well as a reason to do so.

K-9 Unit display tests your ability to smell.
K-9 Unit display tests your ability to smell.

Americans' sometimes fraught relationship with the police, said Dave, made it important that the museum be experiential, and much of its space is devoted to what he called "walk in their shoes" interactive displays -- far more immersive than any TV cop ride-along or online body-cam video clip. Visitors, for example, are invited to feel stress by fielding simulated emergency calls as a 911 dispatcher, or to try establishing a suspect's identity through conflicting descriptions from multiple witnesses.

"My own opinion is that the average citizen really doesn't understand law enforcement," said Dave, a plain-talking former law enforcement officer. "The average American has no clue of what's even in a police car. They don't know what a law enforcement officer does day-in and day-out, what's needed to do the job, or, frankly, the complexity of the job." Dave said that this ignorance is understandable, which is why the museum has focused much of its energy on you-are-the-cop displays.

Collecting evidence at a crime scene: always painstaking, sometimes grisly.
Collecting evidence at a crime scene: always painstaking, sometimes grisly.

The most surprisingly popular exhibit in the museum is the video Training Simulator, which places visitors 12 and older in various nerve-wracking law enforcement scenarios that require spilt-second decisions. Although Dave tactfully avoided revealing the tourist failure rate, he did note that, "Some people immediately shoot," even when the lawbreaker isn't doing anything life-threatening. "When you ask them afterward what they were thinking, they'll say, 'Well, I was scared. I had to do something.'" Dave noted that law enforcement officers are trained not to do that.

Filling a more traditional role, the museum has a trove of over 20,000 artifacts, "from the use of DNA to the history of the flashlight," said Dave, although only around 800 are on exhibit at any one time, circulating in and out frequently. Among the items you may or may not see are J. Edgar Hoover's desk, Al Capone's bulletproof vest, and the handcuffs slapped on Sirhan Sirhan after he (supposedly) assassinated Robert Kennedy.

National Law Enforcement Museum.
Most-wanted lawbreakers had a price on their heads.

Examine wounds in the autopsy exhibit.
Examine wounds in the autopsy exhibit.

A helicopter that rescued passengers from a sinking jetliner is one of the museum's larger exhibits, as is a bullet-riddled pickup truck that an officer rammed into a killer's van at 50 mph (The officer survived and attended the museum opening).

There's a pistol made of paper by a desperate convict, a standard-issue purse in which 1960s policewomen had to carry all of their gear, and the jacket of a murderous motorcycle gang worn by an undercover agent. "One of the more unique artifacts in the museum is Osama bin Laden's hat," said Dave, retrieved as part of a law enforcement investigation into the terrorist's final moments. "It's the one he was wearing when he was killed."

The museum's "Reel to Real" exhibit showcases pop culture relics from law enforcement TV shows and movies -- including a RoboCop suit -- and reminds visitors that fighting crime often isn't glamorous or thrilling. It's also dangerous. A secluded area of the museum offers a "Hall of Remembrance," displaying photos of the hundreds of American law enforcement officers killed over the previous 12 months. "It's a tough, tough profession," said Dave.

Put on a headset, play the role of a 911 emergency dispatcher.
Put on a headset, play the role of a 911 emergency dispatcher.

Dave added that the museum is "not a downer place," despite the sometime grim truths of law enforcement. "You're not gonna come out saying, 'Oh my gosh, that's the most depressed I've ever felt in my life,'" he said, citing exhibits where visitors can pit their sense of smell against that of a police dog, or detect when a lawbreaker is lying in recorded real-life interrogations (The replica interrogation room has a scent diffuser to make it musty).

"The museum should be fun, but also as real as we can represent it," said Dave. "Most visitors come away with a sense of, 'Wow, this isn't as easy as it looks.'"

Update: In March 2019 Dave Brant resigned as executive director of the museum, which had not been attracting as many visitors as expected.

Also see: DEA Museum | Alcatraz East

National Law Enforcement Museum

444 E St. NW, Washington, DC
On the south side of E St. NW, midway between 4th and 5th Sts NW. The museum is underground, entered through an aboveground glass atrium.
Daily 10-6, Th 10-9 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $22.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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