In July of 1942, Police Battalion 101 — comprising mostly middle-aged, working-class men from Hamburg stationed in occupied Poland — gathered outside the small town of Józefów at dawn while the residents slept. Suffering from a moral crisis, the leader, Major Wilhelm Trapp, handed down orders with tears in his eyes: Separate the healthy men for work; the women, children, and elderly, shoot. A caveat: If any man felt that he couldn’t do this, he didn’t have to. Twelve men stepped forward and resisted orders. Yet nearly 500 stayed, and 17 hours later the Jews of Józefów were gone.

Scholars have spent much time trying to understand why so many men followed orders, noting that myriad officers were psychologically damaged by the events. And while most of the officers never had to directly perform mass executions again, they continued to operate as an important cog in the German wheel of death for the duration of the war.

When Charles Ramsey, the former Metropolitan police chief in Washington, DC, visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in 1998, he was haunted by the discovery that police forces so actively participated in the genocide. His experience led him to partner with the Anti-Defamation League, the USHMM, and local Holocaust museums around the country to create Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons from the Holocaust (LEAS), a training that educates officers about the role of the police in Nazi Germany and allows them to reflect on their responsibility today. To date, the program has trained 130,000 law enforcement professionals from all 50 states, as well as the FBI, ICE, the US Marshals Service, the Secret Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

This year the Holocaust Center for Humanity and the Pacific Northwest ADL launched Seattle’s first training in conjunction with the Seattle Police Department. With approximately two four-hour trainings a week with 25 officers from across the force, the program should graduate all 1,300 sworn employees of the SPD by February of 2018.

“The LEAS training is unique in that it provides members of the law enforcement community a safe opportunity to reflect on their roles and responsibilities as part of our democracy in the 21st century,” says PNW ADL director Hilary Bernstein. “The professionally guided discussions explore negative stereotypes that exist about police, as well as the high ideals to which they themselves aspire.”

At a recent training, members of the force toured the Holocaust Center for Humanity museum in Belltown, studied Nazi propaganda photographs, and explored modern police stereotypes (racists, thugs, corrupt) as opposed to the images they want the public to have (protectors, humans, honest).

Two days later, Charleena Lyles was fatally shot in front of her children by two officers, and the department was barraged anew with accusations of bias and calls for reform.

LEAS training is the most recent course in SPD’s anti-bias trainings and one that falls in line with two pillars of SPD’s police reform goals: enhancing public trust and building pride and professionalism. “This is one class in a comprehensive strategy where we are addressing historical issues that people who interact with the police bring to the table, and the baggage any officer carries,” says Brian Maxey, Chief Operating Officer of the SPD. Past trainings have included “Race and the Power of Illusion,” classes on implicit and explicit bias, and transgender awareness. This one is different, Maxey says. LEAS doesn’t give officers a set of rules; rather, it gives them a space to reflect on the meaning of their jobs. Maxey hopes that the training helps officers recommit to ensuring that officers’ civilian contact aligns with how they wish to be perceived. 

“When you’re a police officer, there are written rules for everything you do,” says Lieutenant Shanon Anderson, who has been present at most of the trainings. “If you think about that, over the years it causes the critical thinking to go away. Now we’re looking at individual biases, individual decision making. We’re not giving them the exact takeaway. We want them to come away with the takeaway themselves.”

The launch of LEAS in 1999 means its resonance moves with the national conversation. “After 9/11, police were concerned with the balance of safety and security and protecting civil liberties,” Marcus Applebaum, the director of the USHMM’s Law, Justice, and Society Initiatives says. “After Ferguson, the conversation changed again to reflect the national dialogue. As facilitators, we do not explicitly make connections to present events with law enforcement, but instead foster an environment that allows them to have honest conversations with themselves, all amid the backdrop of history.”

The SPD leadership is encouraged by the program and its reception so far. “We come into this profession because we want to help people and do the right thing,” Lt. Anderson says. “When we’re accused of or perceived as doing things that go against that — discriminating or having biases — that doesn’t feel good. People believe to their core they’re trying to help people.”

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