A Look Beneath the Badge

Above: Guests enjoy the Beneath the Badge exhibit during a March 26 preview party

Above: Guests enjoy the Beneath the Badge exhibit during a March 26 preview party

Does your local museum have a special exhibit on policing? In Charlotte, North Carolina, they do. For Deputy Chief Harold Medlock, a history buff, and the rest of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s History Committee, a dream became a reality when Beneath the Badge: Policing in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County opened earlier this year at the Charlotte Museum of History. The exhibit, which encompasses 3,000 square feet, has 200 objects and 250 images exploring the rich history of the police department and the individuals who have protected and served the community.

“Oftentimes people have ideas for an exhibit” said Leslie Kesler, a curator at the Charlotte Museum of History. “But the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department wanted to not only produce a product, but grow as an organization and preserve their history as an ongoing process, not a one time exhibit.” To accomplish that, Chief Rodney Monroe allocated asset forfeit funds to hire the museum to help document the legacy of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD), its predecessors, and staff.

Above: Geraldine Powe looks at the Beneath the Badge exhibit during a March 26 preview party. Powe is the sister of Retired Officer Rudy Torrence, who was president of the North State Law Enforcement Association, which sued the department for discrimination in 1971.

Above: Geraldine Powe looks at the Beneath the Badge exhibit during a March 26 preview party. Powe is the sister of Retired Officer Rudy Torrence, who was president of the North State Law Enforcement Association, which sued the department for discrimination in 1971.

From the onset, department officials recognized that they did not have the expertise to achieve their goals which were to preserve their past; to educate current officers and new recruits; and to help the community better understand the police department, the progress it has made, and the fact that officers are regular people too.

Thus began a unique partnership between the police department and the museum. “It’s the most intense collaboration I’ve had in 20 years,” Kesler said. To assist in this mammoth task, Melissa Treadaway, a former Charlotte-Observer journalist and current CMPD grant writer, soon found herself dedicated to this project full time and learning how to catalog, photograph, store, and tag items. The police department also bought software to help properly track objects and enter descriptive information. For Treadaway, this was the perfect assignment. She put her journalistic skills and sense of curiosity to work, scouring the department’s attics, closets, and tapping into the best resource she had—the men and women at the department. From there she expanded her horizons by attending monthly dinner meetings for retired county deputies and police officers. As Treadaway generated more interest in the project, the collection continued to grow. She was not only gathering items, but the stories that brought these objects to life. “It’s one thing to have people’s stuff; it’s another to have their stories,” Treadaway said.

One of the most memorable people she met was Ray Booton, one of eight African-Americans who joined the Charlotte Police Department in the 1940s. Soon Treadaway was bringing a museum historian, videographer, and Chief Monroe to meet Booton. While he did not live to see the exhibit open, Booton’s memories are captured on videotape and his son donated his badge to the police department.

The exhibit portrays both challenges and successes through the years. For example, Booton talked candidly about some of those challenges such as only being permitted to patrol African-American neighborhoods. Issues and incidents of trust are also illustrated throughout the exhibit, including a police shooting in the early 20th century during a streetcar strike. The officers thought their lives were in danger and fired into the crowd, resulting in civilian casualties. This tragedy is used as a learning tool for the community to better understand life-threatening situations and the kind of split-second decisions law enforcement officers often have to make. Throughout the exhibit, museum visitors can see how policing has evolved. The exhibit itself is a testament to community policing and the importance of building and strengthening community-police relationships.

Together, the museum curatorial team and police department developed an exhibit that comprises 14 sections, including crime scenes, communications, and patrol. Police pursuits come to life at the press of a button. An antique callbox features officer stories about chasing bootleggers during prohibition and chasing mannequins blowing down the street after Hurricane Hugo. Other exhibit favorites include an 85-pound protective suit worn by members of the Charlotte Police Bomb Squad in the 1970s and 1980s; a fingerprinting kit from the 1940s;  handcuffs from the 1920s; and REDD, the Robotic Educational D.A.R.E. Droid, who began taking his antidrug message to schools and community events in 1989.

Adorning a wall of the exhibit is the “Law Enforcement Officer Oath” which has become widely popular among kids. After reciting the oath, they each receive a badge-shaped sticker. Other interactive exhibits can be found in the crime lab section where visitors can use their sleuthing skills to match fingerprints and shoe prints. There is also a cadre of museum staff and retired officers who offer docent-led tours of the exhibit.

“This project has been more successful than we ever imagined,” Chief Monroe said. “Veteran and retired officers love to reminisce over the old photos and equipment. Young officers are amazed by the changes in equipment and technology. Non-police families, especially the children, really enjoy learning more about how we do our jobs. The response to Beneath the Badge has been fantastic. At the exhibit unveiling, I even got to meet the city’s oldest living former police chief, 90-year-old Jesse James.”

Not only did the exhibit exceed expectations, but the goals of the CMPD history committee have been realized. “The museum has provided a great opportunity to introduce the community to the police department in a neutral territory,” Treadaway said. “No one is in trouble.” And the police department has capitalized on this with “meet your officer” events; neighborhood association socials; community dialogs; a Police Benevolent fund barbecue; a weeklong police-themed summer camp; and a monthly family day that features special units such as the bomb squad, crime prevention, and K-9. Upcoming family days are being held Saturday, July 10 and Saturday, August 14, 2010 from noon to 3 p.m.

“There is nothing I enjoy more than watching people view the exhibit,” Treadaway said. Beneath the Badge will remain at the Charlotte Museum of History until May 2011. By then, the police department hopes to have a suitable home for the exhibit in its headquarters that is accessible to the public. For more information, please visit www.charlottemuseum.org. The Charlotte Museum of History is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., and Sundays 1 p.m.–5 p.m.

-- Amy Schapiro
Senior Social Science Analyst
The COPS Office

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