Learning the Lessons of the Holocaust to Train Better Police Officers for Today and Tomorrow
United States Holocaust
Charles H. Ramsey
It is indeed an honor for me to be your speaker tonight … to offer my perspective on a training program which I very much believe in, and which I know is improving the quality of policing here in our Nation's Capital - and, now, in other jurisdictions as well. The idea for this unique program may have started with some brainstorming among a handful of individuals. But the fact of the matter is that "Lessons of the Holocaust" has been, and continues to be, a team effort. And I would like to thank, and salute, all of the team members on the project:
It took all of you working together to get this program off the ground. And all of you have continued working together … continuously evaluating and improving upon the curriculum that is now part of the basic training for all of recruit officers in the Metropolitan Police Department. There were no guidelines or "best practices" for you to rely on. You were operating in uncharted territory. But by working a team, you have done a remarkable job of bringing the lessons of the Holocaust home … of making them meaningful to our police officers of today and tomorrow. Congratulations to all of you - and thank you for helping to make our Police Department and our profession that much better. You are truly making a difference.
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I must admit that it is difficult for me, at times, to express the full range of ideas and emotions I have about this topic. The lessons of the Holocaust - for law enforcement and for society in general - are that far-reaching, and my own reactions to this human tragedy are deep and complex.
I will never forget the first time I visited the museum … as a guest of David Friedman, soon after I had been named Chief almost two years ago. I spent a good part of that tour walking and talking with Irene Weiss - who is, of course, a Holocaust survivor. Just to hear her tell her own experiences and memories was so powerful for me. All of us study the Holocaust in school. But few of us have the opportunity to hear about it first hand … in ways that a textbook could never capture.
I left that first visit to the Museum truly overwhelmed with emotion. But I also left with a strong sense that there were important lessons in this facility - lessons for myself and for every police officer. So I went back a few weeks later and toured the Museum again … on my own this time. And it was really following that second visit that the lessons of the Holocaust started to become clearer in my own mind - and the idea of making these lessons part of the lesson plan for our police recruits began to take hold. From there, it took people like David and Sara and the leadership at our police academy to turn this idea into something real and tangible and relevant. They have done an outstanding job in meeting that challenge, and I am very proud to be associated with them.
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In preparing for tonight's program, I decided to take a couple of hours, last Friday, to tour the permanent exhibition one more time. You know - one of the remarkable things about this Museum is that each time I visit it, I come away with new information about the Holocaust … and new insights into our topic tonight: the role of law enforcement in the Holocaust and the lessons it holds for today. Last Friday's visit was no different.
When you first get off the elevator to begin the tour, one of the first images you see is a 1945 photograph of a lone prisoner who has just been liberated from Buchenwald. He is eating from a simple bowl. What I have always found striking about this photograph - what has always pulled me into the image - is the subject's eyes. Usually, the idea of "liberation" conjures up images of parties and ticker-tape parades and wild celebrations in the streets. There were certainly many of these images of liberation captured by photographers as World War II was coming to a close.
But this liberation photo is obviously much different. And the difference, I think, is captured in the eyes of the newly liberated prisoner. His eyes tell the story of much more than just physical pain and exhaustion. They reveal a story of intense emotional pain, of anguish and, ultimately, of resignation. Given what this man has been through, there is no room for what we might consider to be natural reactions at a time of liberation - reactions of relief, excitement and joy.
And as I was looking into this man's eyes once again last Friday, I began to think about what message they hold for today's police officers. When we come in to a distressed or crime-ridden community to execute a search warrant, or make an arrest, or board up an abandoned building - are the eyes of our residents all that different from the eyes of the prisoner in this 1945 photograph? Do our residents really view the police as "liberators"? Or are we somehow viewed as something else … perhaps as being a part of the problem … maybe because we didn't do enough to prevent their neighborhood from deteriorating in the first place?
Part of the anguish I see in the eyes of that newly liberated prisoner at Buchenwald is the feeling that all of this human tragedy was so unnecessary. It didn't have to happen … if only the people who were supposed to protect the rights and liberties of the Jewish people had stood up and done something early on. And that is part of the anguish that many of our own residents feel today. It's great that the police are here now - to try to clean up the problems of crime and disorder that have developed over the years in their communities. But where were the police when these problems were taking hold?
Of course, there are important differences between the two scenarios. In the 1930s and 1940s, local police officers in the Nazi empire not only didn't prevent atrocities from taking place - they actively participated in many of those atrocities, up to and including the murder of innocent people. That type of blatant criminal behavior is certainly not found in the vast, vast majority of our police officers today. But the question - then and now - is still the same: Where were the police?
Where were the police when libraries were being looted and books burned? When Jewish businesses were being illegally targeted? When people were being classified and publicly harassed, and ultimately imprisoned and slaughtered? Where were the police? And where was the rest of the community - the local politicians, other government officials, civic leaders and everyday citizens … most of whom stood by silently and watched it all happen?
Fast forwarding several decades … where were the police when crack cocaine and other drugs invaded our communities? When gangs, armed with powerful automatic and semi-automatic weapons, took control of many of our streets? When shootings and homicides became everyday occurrences in far too many of our communities? Where were the police? And, once again, where was the rest of the community when crime was gaining its strangle-hold on many of our communities?
Whether they pertain to the 1930s or the current decade -- these are compelling questions. And they are questions I think all police officers should be thinking about and talking about.
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At least some Americans were asking, "Where were the police?," at the time of the Holocaust. One of the newspaper blow-ups on display in the Museum is from the Dallas Morning News of November 11th, 1938. Its banner headline, reporting on the Kristallnacht Rampage of two days earlier, reads as follows: "Hysterical Nazis Wreck Hundreds of Jewish Shops, Burn Synagogues in Wild Orgy of Looting and Terror." What I find even more interesting is the "kicker," or sub-headline, to the story: "Policemen Refuse to Halt Organized Riots in Germany."
What's revealing about that statement is that it expresses the long-held tradition in our country that if people are rioting and looting and destroying property, it is the job of the police to step in and do something. If any of the demonstrators against the IMF and World Bank were to begin even small-scale looting this week in D.C., you can be certain our police officers will step in. That is just so fundamental to our view of what the mission of the police is all about: to protect lives and property.
How then, in Germany in the 1930s, did things get so out of balance that people could loot and destroy, in an organized and widespread manner, without the police even trying to intervene? In our current paradigm, such complacency on the part of the police seems almost impossible. But it was a reality - and a paradox - that this training program forces our officers to confront.
I would guess that most of the recruit officers who go through this training - like most first-time visitors to the Museum - mistakenly believe that the Nazi atrocities were carried out almost exclusively by the military … by the infamous SA and SS troops. Most people simply don't realize the integral role that local police played - not just in passively permitting atrocities to happen, but in actively participating in many of them. Over time, of course, the distinctions between local police and the Nazi military became so blurred that the two became synonymous. But even in the early days of the Nazi regime, soldiers and police - though organizationally separate - often walked hand-in-hand. The dramatic photo on the top floor of the exhibition - a photo of a police officer and a Nazi militia soldier flanking a muzzled dog - reminds us of the growing trend toward "nationalizing" the police at that time.
The stated reasons for this trend - and for the increasingly repressive tactics the police employed - have an all-too-familiar ring to them. Crime was out of control. Mobsters were in control. Enforcement across different jurisdictions was difficult. The Depression was breeding crime, and this lawlessness demanded a swift and certain response.
The Nazis didn't call it "zero tolerance" at the time, but the brand of crime control they practiced was "zero tolerance" … taken to its most horrific extreme. For the concept quickly moved from "zero tolerance" for criminal behavior … to "zero tolerance" for those people believed responsible for crime, disorder and other forms of hardship - in this case, Jews, gays and lesbians, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, the "Roma" and many, many others.
Of course, the term "zero tolerance" is quite in vogue today. Some people even suggest - quite mistakenly, I would argue - that "zero tolerance" and "community policing" are one in the same.
The thing I dislike most about the concept of "zero tolerance" is that the ideal of democracy is actually all about tolerance - tolerance for different people, different cultures, different viewpoints. In the name of "zero tolerance," many police departments today crack down on nuisance crimes such as drinking in public. I certainly don't advocate drinking in public. But how many of us ask the questions: Why is this person an alcoholic to begin with? And why doesn't he have a home to live in?
If we are to stand for any type of "zero tolerance," it should be zero tolerance for the causes of crime … and zero tolerance for the racist attitudes that led to the Holocaust 70 years ago, and which continue to feed hate crimes in our communities today. That is the type of "zero tolerance" we, as police officers, should be focusing on.
What followed from the "zero tolerance" policies in Nazi Germany 70 years ago was the denial of basic human rights and individual freedoms. And almost from the beginning, local police were intimately involved in this process. Whether it was providing intelligence information to invading army troops or harassing people who violated Nazi taboos - whether it was arresting political opponents or being the foot soldiers in the mobile killing squads - local police soon became part and parcel of the Nazi reign of repression and terror.
Could the Holocaust have happened without the active cooperation and participation of the local police? We may never know the answer to that question. But one thing we do know for certain: local police forces began to stand for a set of values that was totally contrary to their oath of office … and totally contrary to the mission of the police in a free, democratic and pluralistic society.
For our police recruits, this is one of the primary lessons of the training: that their oath of office stands for something … something very sacred … something they must never, ever violate. For when police officers violate their oath, there are indeed consequences. The Holocaust is probably the most extreme example of just how horrific and far-reaching those consequences may be. But even small ethical violations on the part of police officers can result in peoples' rights being denied, their confidence in the police being eroded, and their communities being made less safe. That is an extremely critical lesson for our officers - and one which this training drives home.
But the training does more than simply point out the consequences of police complicity or misconduct. The true power of this training, I think, lies in its call to action. The message for our recruits is loud and clear: when basic human and civil rights are threatened or denied, it is the police who need to be the first … the very first … to stand up in protest. Others should follow us, but we need to be first. Our oath as police officers demands that we take this leadership role.
The training also reminds us that local police must never become so politicized - as they were in Nazi Germany - that we exist primarily to carry out the will of political leaders … or to simply look the other way when political agendas or atrocities are carried out. Our power - our authority as police officers - come not from the politicians. Our power and authority come from the people. And above all else, our role as police officers is to protect and preserve the rights of the people - the right to assemble, the right to speak, the right to petition and criticize one's government, the right to be secure in our homes, our possessions and our beliefs. Defending these rights - for all people … all of the time - is what ultimately defines us as police officers.
Too often, however, we see the opposite take place - not just in Nazi Germany, but in our own country as well. In recent years, with the escalation of crack cocaine, youth violence, child abuse and other serious problems, we have heard various calls for the relaxation of the exclusionary rule, the reversal of other 4th Amendment rights and, most recently, the overhaul of police Miranda warnings. All of these suggestions have been made in the name of more effective law enforcement and safer communities.
Yes … the police need to work harder and smarter in controlling crime. But in doing so, we must never compromise our staunch defense of the Constitution and the bedrock freedoms it guarantees. We must never buy into the notion - as the police in Nazi Germany did - that taking away individual rights is somehow the way to solve our crime problems and create safer communities. If our recruits leave their day at this Museum with only one lesson learned, I hope it is that one.
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For decades, people have referred to the police as the "thin blue line" - as a fragile, but necessary demarcation between "good" and "evil" in our communities. I mentioned earlier that I didn't really like the concept of "zero tolerance." Well, I don't feel a whole lot better about the "thin blue line" either.
The Holocaust teaches us that in Nazi Germany, the police did become a line - and, eventually, a not very thin line - between what Hitler and his political allies defined as "good" and "evil." The problem with being a "line" means you have to put each and every individual you encounter on one side or the other of that line - either the good side or the evil side. It requires police officers to make snap judgments about people - based not always on their behavior … but sometimes on their appearances, their attitudes, where the live, who they associate with, and other factors.
In essence, it is "profiling" at its very worst. In the Holocaust, we saw political leaders and the police turn profiling into a cruel and systematic science - gauging everything from peoples' eye color to hair texture to facial features. And today, in communities across America, we see challenges to the perceived profiling by the police based on race and ethnicity. Much of the tension around this issue stems, I think, from this "thin blue line" metaphor.
True "community policing" does not define police officers as a line - thin, blue or otherwise. We are not now - nor should we ever be - something that divides and separates our communities. Rather, I like to think of the police as a thread - a thread that is woven throughout the communities we serve … indeed, a thread that holds together the very fabric of democracy. If we unravel, then our very democracy begins to unravel. That, I think, captures the true image and role of the police in a free society.
This concept of the police as a thread, not a line, was driven home for me last Friday, as I walked once again through the Tower of Faces … that amazing collection of photographs from the Polish community of Ejszyszki. As I stopped and looked at the faces of those people, the homes they lived in, the streets they walked, the games they play, the work they did … I asked myself this: How could the police officers assigned to that community stand by and let these people be destroyed?
The officers who served that community may not have grown up there, just as many of our police officers today did not grow up in the communities they now serve. But that is their community now. When the community hurts, the police officer should hurt. When the community celebrates, the officer should celebrate. But when the community is threatened, the police officer must be the one to stand up and be counted. That is what it means to be a thread in the community. That is what it means to practice community policing. If our modern-day police officers can only adopt that attitude - and this training helps them do that, I think, - then they cannot possibly stand by and let their communities be torn apart, as Ejszszki was.
The lessons of this period are certainly sober ones. But the Holocaust does provide some wonderful illustrations of what can happen when police officers do stand up in the face of evil and intolerance. And that's an important lesson as well.
Unlike local police in many of the other countries the Nazis invaded, the Danish police (along with Hungarian police and others) refused to cooperate with the invading military. Just the opposite, in fact: Danish police actively organized and participated in rescue efforts that spared the lives of all but 51 of the estimated 7,200 Jews who were living in Denmark at the time. For police officers today, the heroism and bravery of the Danish police offer a real-life story of the impact we can have in preserving rights and saving lives. But we can have an impact only when our officers are part of the communities they serve … when we share the values of those communities … and when we remain forever true to those values and to the values of our profession. So there is a lesson of hope in this training as well.
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I have spoken this evening about the "big picture" lessons that our recruits explore in the Holocaust training program. And they are very important lessons. But before I close, I want to mention one other lesson that our recruits pick up from the day they spend here at the Museum. It is a much more intimate and personal lesson. It is a lesson in how to deal with our own personal prejudices - in our very public jobs as police officers.
Nobody enters this profession without some prejudices. It's human nature. And police officers are, after all, human beings too. I think it's ironic that officers often talk about the differences between themselves and "civilians." I love to point out the fact that before any of us put on the uniform and badge, we too were "civilians." And to this day, we are still not all that different from the "civilians" we serve. What that means, of course, is that we come to this job with certain preconceptions about people … certain stereotypes … and, yes, certain prejudices.
This training program forces our recruits to confront those highly personal feelings in a very compelling, but supportive way. Nobody is asked to publicly confess any prejudices they may hold. But I think any person who walks through this Museum or goes through our training would be hard-pressed not to go home and take a deep look inside themselves, at their own attitudes and values. I know I do each time I visit here. And because our recruits take this introspective journey early on in their careers, I am convinced they start off being more aware and more tolerant than they might otherwise have been.
Tonight, I have focused on the history of this training program and the positive impact it is having on our recruit training. I want to close by offering you a vision of where I hope this program may go in the future. Thus far, the Metropolitan Police Department has incorporated the "Lessons of the Holocaust" into our standard recruit curriculum. And I have taken all of my Command Staff through a condensed version of the training, so they can be exposed to what our new officers are learning. But we shouldn't stop there, with a one-time program. The issues and lessons this training covers are so complex, so profound and so relevant that we need to have our experienced officers participate in periodic "refresher courses" if you will.
Next year, I hope to include the "Lessons of the Holocaust" as part of the regular 40-hour, in-service training that all of our officers now complete on an annual basis. And I would like to incorporate this program into our training for newly promoted sergeants, lieutenants, captains and Command Staff members as well. I would like to see the other law enforcement agencies now participating in this program follow suit.
But as we move forward, I think we need to look beyond the field of policing … and think of ways to incorporate the lessons of the Holocaust into the training for other professions as well. For while the police played a central role in carrying out the Holocaust, they by no means did it alone. It took the involvement and complicity of many others - lawyers, judges, teachers, doctors, the clergy and more. All doctors, for example, take the Hippocratic oath pledging, above all else, to work to cure disease and save lives. But during the Holocaust, doctors on a routine basis conducted unbelievably cruel and vicious experiments on other human beings.
So just as police officers during the Holocaust lost touch with the communities they served and the oaths they took, so, too, did countless members of other professions. I think it is time for the leaders of these professions to look at how they, too, could use this Museum to help train better doctors, lawyers, judges, teachers, clergy members and other professionals for the 21st Century. For members of these professions, the lessons of the Holocaust are just as powerful and relevant as they have proven to be for our police officers.
I want to thank you once again for the honor of being your speaker tonight. And thank you for your continued support of this Museum and the outstanding educational programs it provides, in partnership with such fine groups such as the ADL and others. Just as the Danish police made such a difference in their communities by supporting the Resistance, so, too, are all of you making a difference in our community - by supporting this Museum and the incredible lessons it holds for all of us. Thank you very much.