Back in 1997, Officer James Ritter of the Seattle Police Department had an idea. A lifelong collector of rare law enforcement photos, documents and artifacts, he had amassed a basement full of the unique history of the City’s police force. He decided it was time to share it. He went on to raise support within the force to build a museum.
“Whenever I showed the collection to fellow officers, family members or friends they would be in awe,” says Ritter, 55, a 37-year-veteran and currently serving as the Department’s LGBTQ Community Liaison Officer.
“I knew that it couldn’t stay in my basement anymore, I had to share it.”
With blessings from his superiors and the help of a group of volunteer officers, he located an empty building on the fringes of Pioneer Square that had been abandoned for almost 30 years and began turning it into his dream.
Pioneer Square, in those days, was a rough neighborhood — particularly along the stretch of Third Avenue and Jackson St., where the Museum now stands.
“There were no street lights, there were no trees — the city had kind of forgotten about it,” says Ritter.
But Ritter saw the location as an ideal spot for reaching out to the community.
“What a better place for the police museum to be. This is where the city all started. This is where the nitty-gritty police work was done back in the 1860s and 1890s and today.”
When they opened their doors, the museum was among the first of its kind in the country and remains the largest police museum of any major city.
The museum takes viewers on a chronological tour of the Seattle Police Department and King County Sheriff’s Department’s history, including one-of-a-kind documents, rare photos and newspaper clippings and authentic artifacts dating back to the 1860s — when Seattle was a frontier town of 200 people. The museum prides itself on showing both the good and bad of law enforcement in the city.
“We’re a private nonprofit,” Says Ritter, “and wanted to keep it that way, to keep the politics out of it... and give a sense of legitimacy to the museum.”
Most of the museum’s operating funds come from $5 monthly donations out of the paychecks of the city’s more than 2,000 officers.
Ritter shows a tour group the diamond-encrusted badge given as a thinly-veiled bribe to the Police Chief by racketeers in 1923, the various pain-inducing restraints and confession-extracting torture devices used by officers throughout the force’s early years, articles and photos detailing the corruption scandals of the 1960s, and the tear gas cartridge launchers used on crowds in the 1998 WTO protests.
During times of turmoil, I think having the police museum to come to, to learn about the city’s history and how it’s changed — it’s invaluable.
These sobering reminders sit next to displays detailing the hiring of the force’s first black officer in 1890, the first female police officers in 1911 and the evidence work that led to the capture of Gary Leon Ridgway, known as the Green River Killer, in the early 2000s.
The museum also owns more than 20 vintage police cars, including the 1970 Plymouth Satellite that Ritter still uses to patrol the city. Attracting gawkers wherever they go, the vehicles are used to help start conversations with community members who may not normally approach police.
“We want to make sure that we preserve our profession for the public to learn from, for the media to learn from, so they get a better idea of why we do what we do.”
But as the area around the museum changes, its reluctance to accept public money has also led to financial uncertainty for the future.
“Seattle is changing rapidly. Downtown is getting very expensive to live in,” says Ritter, contemplating the new skyscrapers visible from the museum and the multitude of construction workers erecting a new officer tower steps away. “The changes I’ve seen in this neighborhood — it’s staggering. We don’t own the building we’re in, so we always kind of worry about what tomorrow will bring.”
We’re a private nonprofit and wanted to keep it that way, to keep the politics out of it… and give a sense of legitimacy to the museum.
The museum’s landlord, who rents the space at a reduced rate, was recently forced to raise the rent by $1,200 to keep pace with development. And the increases have come at a time SPD is under federal investigation for its use of force policies and while law enforcement faces increased public scrutiny. Despite the added economic pressure, total visitors — including events and car shows — is on the rise, reaching an estimated 800,000 last year.
Ritter says the role of the museum is even more important now than ever.
“I think that to keep things in historical perspective is critical, [and] the police department is a direct reflection of society,” he says.
“During times of turmoil — when the public is confused about what their police department’s mission is, rhetoric surrounding it [on the] internet or social media — I think having the police museum to come to, to learn about the city’s history and how it’s changed — it’s invaluable.”
“When you see the grit of an old badge which hasn’t been worn in a hundred years, imagining what those scratches came from, imagining the officer that wore it, what he or she did in their career, it tells a different story than a picture or blog on a website.”
Ritter is confident the museum can stay open to see its 20th anniversary next year.
“We’ve seen a number of changes. We’ve gone through recessions, through prosperous times here in Seattle. But it’s been here for nearly 20 years and we hope we’re here for a long time to come.”
To book a tour of the museum or to share any vintage or antique police artifacts (regardless of law enforcement agency), or for possible acquisition or donation, visit the Seattle Metropolian Police Museum website or email James.Ritter@seattle.gov.
A native of Calgary, Canada who cut his teeth in the documentary industry of Washington, D.C., Nils moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 after working on a National Park Service film about Mt. Rainier and falling in love with the area. He has been producing non-fiction content for thirteen years, from broadcast and independent documentaries to museum films and non-profit PSAs. One of his most recent films, 'Beyond the Visible’ which reveals the inner workings and transformational science of the Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico, was just awarded the 2014 Cine Golden Eagle Award for non-fiction storytelling. Nils lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids.More stories by Nils Cowan