Police Recruits Going Back to School at the Holocaust Museum

On the back left side window of every Metropolitan Police Department vehicle is a sticker which reads “We Are Here to Help”. Contrarily, the term “police brutality” was one of the most highly searched items on Google so far this year. Over the past few months, concern about police interactions with minorities greatly increased as protests for racial equality swept the nation. Although concerns about harmful police practices are not new, they have placed an emphasis on the fact that some law enforcement officers are targeting ethnic and racial minority groups. During this tumultuous time, I would like the chance to highlight a positive and underutilized aspect of police training that has the potential to make a beneficial change in staunching implicit bias. 

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s program, Law Enforcement, and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust (LEAS), was created with the intent of using the history of police in Nazi Germany as a means to help today’s law enforcement officers better understand their own professional and individual responsibilities. The program was specifically designed to examine the role of police officers at the time of the Holocaust. During this time, police officers were essential in maintaining public order as well as combating racial enemies of the Nazi state. They also played a central role in the deportation, concentration, and murder of Jews in Nazi Europe, where the laws they enforced violated the ideals of service and protection for minority individuals. By looking at the roles of law enforcement in the context of Holocaust history, the program gives current-day law enforcement recruits a chance to reflect on their role in today’s society. Additionally, the program allows its participants to observe the outcome of a law enforcement system that relinquishes its role as protectors of citizens’ rights and ultimately becomes a tool of a government involved in systemic genocide. 

person holding a sign that says Photo by Marco Allasio from Pexels

The LEAS program is a partnership of the USHMM and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), for recruit, in-service, and command-level law enforcement officers. It is a unique form of training that aims to give its participants a new perspective on their roles in protecting the rights of American citizens. Former Police Chief and Commissioner, Charles H. Ramsey, created the program in 1999 with the hope that participants would leave the Holocaust Museum's exhibits with a deepened commitment to continually question the moral quality of their policing on a day to day basis and to promote ethical police practice. Learning about the Holocaust has its value, but so does learning more about the dangers of abuses of power that occurred. Ramsey has asserted that, in practice, the training should lessen the reliance upon implicit bias in everyday law enforcement.

During the program, participants undergo a guided tour of the museum's permanent exhibition, a discussion led by USHMM educators on the role of police within the Nazi state, and a conversation led by the ADL national staff on policing in today’s American society. I had the opportunity to join a Metropolitan Police recruit class in the program before the pandemic. That group joined more than 150 thousand members of police agencies across the country who have been through the ethics training Ramsey conceived in the 1990s. The program has since spread to all levels of law enforcement including the police, FBI, and Secret Service. Additionally, law enforcement officers from eighty other countries worldwide have participated in the program. 

As a profession, all kinds of policies and procedures are instituted to shape the behavior of police officers, and yet many of the same undesirable behavior problems persist. Agencies can teach officers how to be technically proficient, expert marksman, and well-versed in criminal law and procedure. However, this training becomes irrelevant if officers cannot be taught to be compassionate and just human beings who know how to interact with people when they are at their most vulnerable. In a letter to the MPD Ramsey wrote, “In my view, we will not change behavior if we do not change attitude, and we will not change our attitude if we do not change a person’s heart. We need to affect the way in which officers see themselves and their role in society. We need to change what is inside them and help them see things differently.” His creation of the LEAS program is his attempt to foster this progression in new officers.  

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When I attended the program, One recruit’s words pointed to the elephant in the room when she said that with her own personal experience as a black woman, her knowledge of black history, and the media’s awareness of black men being targets of police through racial profiling, she thought it would be more appropriate for recruits to be taken to the African American History Museum. In response to this, I imagine Ramsey would say that the Holocaust is perhaps the most extreme example of just how horrific and far-reaching the consequences can be when police officers break their oath to “protect and to serve” the basic rights and liberties of citizens. The program emphasizes how ordinary people in Nazi Germany, including the police, slowly came to be complicit in one of history’s great tragedies. Marcus Applebaum, who coordinated the museum's community and leadership programs said, “One of the good things that emerges from the bad is that it is a timely incident. We can stress upon cadets the effects of someone who tarnishes their badge.”

At the close of the tour, recruits walk past a collection of shoes recovered from the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. These clothing articles are all that's left of the victims who once wore them. The jarring image of the thousands of empty shoes was met with a shift in posture and behavior from the recruits. Applebaum who has witnessed this shift in many past program tours said that through an examination of the role of law enforcement and the failures that were made, the recruits can see themselves. “And that’s really the goal of the program,” said Applebaum, “for officers to look internally and scrutinize their roles and responsibilities.”

Programs like LEAS should be mandatory in police training, and I think that law enforcement agencies across the nation would benefit from further contextual ethics training. Unfortunately, now in 2020, Some people still argue that police officers do not discriminate against minorities. It is important to recognize that one cannot discuss the 12,000 police agencies in the United States as a single, cohesive unit, and it is simply not fair to assume that half a million police officers are similar on any spectrum, especially discriminatory behavior. At the same time, it is also impossible to say that there are no officers without racist tendencies. Individual perceptions and prejudices of minority groups can absolutely influence decision making. The question is whether law enforcement officers’ views of the world affect the way they do their job. It is not that police officers are more discriminatory than the general public, it is that their position allows for the possibility that their discrimination could cause a citizen to be treated differently than others. Furthermore, if a police officer acts on their personal prejudices while carrying out their job, discrimination will take place in the form of enforcing the law differently or withholding the protections or benefits of the law.

black lives matter protest signs Photo by Obi Onyeador from Unsplash

Washington, DC police officers are questioned randomly directly upon completing the program, and almost always, their anecdotal returns are positive. Most recruits are able to complete LEAS with a better understanding of their positions as protectors of the law and citizen’s rights. At an event to showcase the program to the community, Applebaum remarked that a good number of veteran police officers will tell program volunteers that they think the program is ineffective, and that they believe it to be “a nod to the forces of political correctness who have no notion of the realities of police work.” I think that opinions such as these are all the more reason for implicit bias training to be implemented. 

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

Photos: Her Campus Media