New museum lets visitors walk in the shoes of a police officer

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olice shows on TV are filled with high-speed car chases and crimes solved in a matter of minutes. But that’s not a typical day for a real-life police officer. To get a more accurate picture, head to the new National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington. Interactive exhibits there invite visitors to use their senses of sight, hearing, touch and smell in gathering information the way police, detectives and forensic scientists do.

Explore how footprints and DNA, or genetic material, help solve crimes. Sit in an actual police cruiser as you learn the meaning of different emergency light patterns and sirens.

“It’s a walk-in-their-shoes experience,” said Julie Bell, the museum’s manager of school programs.

Let’s look at a few exhibits.

The Web of Law Enforcement: You’ll quickly learn that crime-solving is a team effort, not only within one department, but among agencies across the country. The FBI, Secret Service, Coast Guard and Postal Inspection Service are just some of the law enforcement groups helping local police when needed. For example, six agencies worked together on a national park graffiti case.

K-9 units: See a video of how dogs are trained to join K-9 units. Test your ability to smell and identify various scents. Learn which breeds are better at tracking the bad guys while others are better at sniffing out drugs. Why are Chihuahuas better at some tasks than German shepherds?

The Training Simulator: Those age 12 and older can try the same training scenarios and equipment used in professional law enforcement classes in which police try to resolve difficult situations. Short videos, based on real police encounters, test participants’ abilities to observe accurately and think quickly before reacting.

The exercises give an understanding of what officers face on a daily basis.

“Many kids first think it’s like a video game,” said Alan Davis, an educator and retired New York police officer. “They soon realize that real-life split-second decision-making isn’t easy, and they freeze. For real police, there are no second chances.”

Five Communities (current programs): Every community is different. Learn how the needs and challenges of five communities are being addressed. These communities’ goals are to develop programs to minimize problems and reduce crime, while increasing trust between residents and police. What might work in your neighborhood? There’s a place for visitors to share their thoughts.

As Luther Reynolds, police chief in Charleston, South Carolina, told the museum, “There is no department in this country that doesn’t have the room to get better.”

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