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SEP 21, 2016

ADL, museum have Holocaust-based lesson for police

by Eitan Arom, Jewish Journal.

Officers look on as L.A. Museum of the Holocaust director of education programs Jordanna Gessler leads reflections at a Sept. 13 training at the museum. Photo by Eitan Arom.

Nineteen police officers sat in four rows of plastic chairs in the second-floor library of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), the spines of books with names of authors like Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel peering down on them from shelves on four sides.

The officers’ eyes were fixed on Jordanna Gessler, the museum’s director of educational programs. Gessler stood in front of a screen, slowly cycling through projections of black-and-white photographs: a Berlin patrolman accompanied by an SS officer; police searching apartment blocks in a historically Jewish neighborhood; officers in Berlin marching a couple through the streets with a sign reading, in German, “I am a race defiler.”

As the last picture came on the screen, Gessler asked the officers for their thoughts. One officer in the back row spoke up.

“Most people never meet politicians, so for them, law enforcement is the government,” he said. “So when they see that, that tells them that this [race mixing] is not OK, because the government is sponsoring that it’s not OK.”

The slideshow was part of a Sept. 13 training program led by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in collaboration with LAMOTH, examining police complicity in Nazi atrocities. The program was titled “Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust.”

The half-day training asked officers from the Beverly Hills Police Department and Los Angeles World Airport Police to reflect on their roles and consider what they can learn about their profession from the Jewish genocide.

 “Some people come into this assuming we’re trying to compare law enforcement to the Nazis,” Matthew Friedman, ADL’s associate director for the Pacific Southwest Region, told the officers. “I want to make absolutely clear that we’re not doing that. … We could do a similar training with any profession and see how they were co-opted.”

After watching a short film on the origins of Nazi rule, the officers toured the circuit of exhibits in the museum’s low-slung, concrete building in Pan Pacific Park. Two groups of officers, most of them in uniform, milled past the personal effects of victims, survivor testimony videos and World War II-era newspaper articles.

 “I read just about every one of the newspaper articles from the Los Angeles Times,” an officer in a suede sports coat said during a reflection period after the tour. (The officers were not permitted to give their names for privacy reasons.) “And whoever was writing those articles was extremely well-informed about what was going on prior to the start of World War II.”

He added, “It seemed as if no one was caring, or no one was paying attention.” 

After the historical slideshow, the program shifted from content analysis to reflection. Friedman asked the officers to name stereotypes normally applied to police, with Ariella Schusterman, his co-regional director at ADL, recording the answers on a whiteboard.

 “We’re racist,” offered a female officer with a pink-lettered airport police badge on her shoulder.

 “Uneducated,” added a small woman with short-cropped hair.

 “Don’t care about the community we serve,” said a man in a short-sleeved shirt.

Then, Schusterman drew a line down the board and started a new column.

 “How do you want to be perceived?” Friedman asked.

These answers came more quickly: honest, hard-working, professional.

 “The exact opposite of everything on the right side,” the officer in the suede sports coat summarized.
As the program wound down, Friedman suggested that while laws and ethics codes stand as important bulwarks against abuse of power, police complicity during the Holocaust shows that those codes can be subverted or simply left by the wayside.

 “Constitutions are just words on a page, but these core values of law enforcement that you gave today are really what make you different,” Friedman said.

ADL’s training, a program begun in 1998 in Washington, D.C., was conceived as a partnership with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in the nation’s capital. Since then, more than 100,000 law enforcement officers have gone through the program, including officers in St. Louis, Texas, Florida and, as of last summer, Los Angeles.

Since the program launched in Southern California in June 2015, it has trained more than 120 officers from local police departments and law enforcement agencies, including police from Torrance, Santa Monica, Long Beach and UCLA.

Preparing to send the officers on their way, Friedman added to his reflections a note of gratitude.

 “Some of you have said that [police work is] thankless,” he said. “Well, we’re thanking you. We thank you every day.” 

To read the article in the Jewish Journal, click here.