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‘This is not a light, easy program’: Anti-bias training for police tells hard truths

Karen Aroesty of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois joined "St. Louis on the Air" in studio.
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

The Anti-Defamation League’s anti-bias program Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust will mark its 10th anniversary by honoring the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, its first law enforcement partner to engage with the program.

That St. Louis police are being recognized for participation in an anti-bias program may seem strange given the region’s long-standing problems with racial bias in law enforcement. But as the ADL states on its website, the anti-bias program has “assumed a new level of urgency” since Ferguson became local, then national news.

The ADL’s training uses the Holocaust as a teaching tool, regional director Karen Aroesty said. “The lessons of Holocaust history are invaluable to the conversation around the core values in policing.” Police played a crucial and violent role in the Third Reich, she explained, which used them to systematize persecution and violence. The officers in training come to learn how police enforcement supported the escalation of violence in Nazi Germany.

The last photograph the officers see, for example, is of a police battalion “shooting naked women and children in a pit,” Aroesty said. “So I can say that this is not a light, easy program. This is not meant to be an easy conversation. It is meant to provoke some serious thought.”

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who also serves as chair for the President’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing, first realized the potential use of Holocaust history as a teaching tool for police nearly a decade ago, during a tour of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “I found the museum to be the most powerful experience I had ever had,” he said. “I saw, to my surprise, the role that police played during the Holocaust. And it really made me start thinking about the role of police in a democratic society, which Germany had been.”

That role does not extend only to enforcing laws, but also to protecting the constitutional rights of individuals in the community. And while officers swear an oath to that effect when they receive their badges, the history of U.S. policing is not so sworn.

“I mean, who was waiting on the other side of the Pettus bridge on what now is known as Bloody Sunday?” Ramsey asked. “It was police. And the point is, police have not always stood on the right side of justice, as we view justice today through a 21st-century lens. It’s important that we understand that and acknowledge it before we can move forward.”

Facilitating understanding and acknowledgement, Ramsey and Aroesty indicated, is the primary mission of the ADL’s anti-bias program. “There are lessons for all of us to learn, and not just police,” Ramsey said. Holocaust history is a good teaching mechanism because the officers of today, so far removed from the actual event, have no cause to become defensive. It acts as a “backdoor approach” to the issue of personal bias without using ‘race relations’ as a jumping-off point.

The primary lesson officers learn, Ramsey said, is that all individuals have biases of some kind—implicitly or explicitly expressed—and that police must be trained to disallow those biases from influencing their work as police.

Accountability and trust with the civilian community are key to good policing, Aroesty and Ramsey agreed, and improvement in those areas has to happen through formal, structural policy changes as much as individual officer training. Taking a closer look at hiring procedures, for example, may make a great deal of difference. Civilian oversight and involvement in police training would help reestablish the sense that police are public servants as much as officers of the law.

“We’ve got a long way to go; it’s not going to happen overnight. But it begins by establishing relationships—one person at a time, if that’s what’s needed. Because it’s just not easy,” Ramsey said. “It’s a fragile thing, trust. And it’s something that you have to constantly work on.”

Hear more:

St. Louis Public Radio’s Nancy Fowler recorded the perspectives of two officers who went through ADL’s anti-bias training. Listen here to their stories about their decisions to become officers and their experiences with the training program.

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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