Police get somber reminder of duty

Holocaust museum gives officers lesson on abuse of power

April 24, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The message behind the 1933 photograph of two German police officers holding a fearsome dog on a leash was clear to Maryland State Police Maj. Vernon R. Herron yesterday.

The photograph of the two men - one, a traditional German police officer; the other, a member of the budding, secret Nazi police - showed how easily the line between good cops and bad cops can become blurred.

"Some people couldn't go to those policemen," said Herron, as he toured the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "We're the first line of defense for civil rights. Here, the police officers were the perpetrators of atrocities."

Herron was one of about 20 top state police officials who took a Holocaust Museum tour yesterday geared for police officers. The program, which began more than two years ago, aims to show how easily a professional police force can become an instrument of terror and forget its responsibilities to protect everyone equally.

Museum officials usually take young officers and recruits through the museum and then conduct a short seminar afterward to reinforce lessons about equality and duty. But yesterday, the tour group was made up of high-ranking commanders who set agency policies and give daily orders - a group that museum officials say is crucial to reach.

"Our interest is to lead from the top," said Andres L. Abril, who directs the police program for the museum.

The tour proved a sobering experience, the commanders said.

Maj. Dallas Pope, who oversees the state police barracks in Southern Maryland, had gone through the tour before, but he said, "It still hits you like a ton of bricks."

Maj. C. Thomas Bowers, who heads the agency's criminal enforcement command, said he had a hard time "trying to fathom the enormity of it all."

The tour began yesterday with the commanders viewing a large photograph of charred corpses at a concentration camp. The group then proceeded through exhibits documenting Nazi atrocities, with a focus on how Germany became a police state and how the police helped the Nazi regime stay in power.

Photographs showed police officers escorting Jews through the streets. They showed book burnings and riots where Jewish businesses and synagogues were looted and destroyed - none of which the police did anything to stop.

The tour, led by Abril, explained how Germany's professional police became one with the Nazi Party. It showed how many police officers became members of the death squads dispatched to exterminate villages of Jews, Gypsies and others the Nazis targeted for elimination.

After the two-hour tour, the commanders sat down in a conference room with museum officials and David C. Friedman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Friedman noted that some of the Maryland State Police responsibilities - protecting life and property, preserving civil order and meeting department goals - were the same as those held by German officers. But, he said, American officers have duties that go beyond that, including the protection of citizens from discrimination and crimes of hate.

The commanders seemed to understand the point.

"What we do on a daily basis is what makes our jobs so hard," said Lt. Col. Cynthia Smith, who heads the agency's administrative services bureau. "This puts everything in real context."

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