Police trainees get lesson in sensitivity at museum

Nazis' abuse of power focus of class tour

November 04, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Officer trainee Malik A. Jenkins-Bey felt the unstable grate floor beneath him. He took in the grim steel-and-concrete decor, the punishing overhead lights and the elevators designed to evoke memories of gas ovens -- and felt uncomfortable, vulnerable.

It was precisely what the soon-to-be-rookie Baltimore police officer had traveled to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to do: gain empathy with victims of the Holocaust of World War II and of police abuse anywhere.

"I can imagine how those people must have felt," Jenkins-Bey said. "I know we have to be sympathetic when we get out there on the street. This shows you the ramifications of our actions all over society."

His fellow trainees agreed.

For more than five hours Tuesday, 55 members of a Baltimore police academy class heard, saw and felt the Holocaust through tours and discussions at the museum. It was one of their last off-street lessons before they graduate Friday at downtown Baltimore's War Memorial Building and go on duty Sunday.

Baltimore police officials intend to make the classes a permanent part of police training. Increasingly, law enforcement agencies in the Baltimore-Washington region are sending recruits to the free sessions, which help train new officers to be sensitive to cultural differences and aware of the potential for police abuse of power.

Begun last year in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League and the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, the classes have been offered to two Baltimore training classes and five Washington classes.

This month, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties will send groups; officials from Fairfax and Montgomery counties also are arranging classes.

Aiming to jar stereotypes

Museum educators and historians, who lead the groups, hope to jar stereotypes and assumptions young officers might harbor -- and relate some of history's lessons to everyday law enforcement.

"We really do hope they make the connection between now and then," said David G. Klevan, a museum educator. "We hope they'll think about it later. I personally want them to think, `What happens when a whole population is defined as criminal?' "

As they examined the role of Nazi officers and German police in the killing of more than 6 million Jews during World War II, the Baltimore trainees also confronted some of the fundamental dilemmas of policing. Sometimes, they admitted, one has to choose between being a good officer and being a good person.

For example, most German law enforcement officials in the war, they learned, repeatedly broke universal laws against killing. And officials working in concentration camps were obeying orders.

"Were these good police officers?

`Compassion and concern'

Said trainee Victor Comegna, "We are trained in the law, on the rules and regulations, but there are certain things they can't teach you -- compassion and concern. Our morals are all different but you've got to have a basic respect for life to do this job. Bottom line."

Invariably, some mentioned recent police abuse cases in Los Angeles, New York and Baltimore.

"They see the impact of what kind of devastation can occur when there is an abuse of power," said Lt. M. Susan Young. "These images are going to stay with them."

Strolling the museum's stark, industrial-style corridors -- designed specifically to evoke sadness, revulsion and discomfort -- the Baltimore trainees heard accounts of Jews forced to sacrifice one family member to save another.

They saw the patched, worn navy-and-gray prison uniforms alongside garb of Nazi officers, red-and-black swastika patches prominent on the left sleeves, salvaged from the war.

They saw photographs of those killed in gas chambers, walked on cobblestones from the Warsaw Ghetto and touched wooden sleeping quarters transported from Auschwitz, the war's largest concentration camp.

And they saw newspaper clippings from The Sun and the New York Times that announced what was happening to the Jews. "Hitler Deprives Jews of Citizenship Rights," read one Sun headline from Sept. 9, 1935.

As the tour moved to the next room, one trainee sighed with disgust. Another museum visitor asked the empty room, "Why didn't they do anything?"

Trainees reported a mixture of anger, sadness and uneasiness with all they saw.

They learned that, during the 1930s and 1940s, Nazi officials studied and emulated American laws enforcing racial segregation.

`Part of the problem'

"The police role was really weird," said recruit Dan Gillgannon, who will work in the Southwestern District. "They started off stopping crime, and then you see them marching people down the street. They became part of the problem."

For trainee Bernard Tomaszewski, who will soon patrol the Southeastern District, the day was particularly evocative: His father, born in Fells Point but raised in Poland, survived Auschwitz. Tomaszewski grew up hearing stories of the camps -- and his father's screaming nightmares.

It was and is, he said, a part of life.

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