The morning began with bagels, coffee and activities — stand up if you've volunteered, that sort of thing. Then speaker Kelley Szany, director of education at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, drew the attention of 113 Chicago Police Department recruits to a large pad of paper at each table and asked them to draw a line down the middle and make a chart.
"Left side, how you see yourselves as officers," she said. "Right side, how you think others see you."
That took five minutes. Then she went around the room, asking one recruit from each table to stand and read what they had written.
Cops see themselves as professional, fair, heroes, leaders, brave, respectful, loyal, sharp-looking, dedicated, motivated, honorable, helpful, caring, comical, authoritative, among other qualities.
The public, however, sees them as aggressive, unfair, rude, selfish, power-hungry, robotic, corrupt, biased, lazy, bullies, violent, drunks, racist, killers, overweight . . . plus a few positive qualities, like courageous and trustworthy.
It seemed an odd exercise, here at the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, a summer camp icebreaker, particularly when they were urged to "please use your police voices." Something soon forgotten in the grim journey the officers-to-be, all in their 20s and 30s, were about to take.
But we would circle back to it during the "Law Enforcement & Democracy Initiative," a unique day of ethics training given to CPD recruits.
Szany walked them through the role the police played in the German Republic becoming the Nazi Third Reich. She passed around photos of street scenes, of officers with dogs, of police publicly humiliating mixed-religion couples.
"What sort of police functions do you see happening in these photographs?" she asked, explaining the process of eroding civil rights.
"When we look at the Holocaust, when we look at genocide as a whole. . . . What we know is that genocide does not happen in a vacuum," Szany said. "Genocide always unfolds in almost an evolution, and in stages, and at every point in these stages . . . we as citizens can choose how we are going to respond. Individuals, organizations and governments can choose how they want to respond. . . . We are going to learn, even if you do not think it is possible to say 'No, I will not participate' it is possible."
They toured the museum, opened in 2009, following a path that moved Europe's Jews from warm scenes of family life to being an ostracized, ghettoized, terrorized, then murdered minority.
The recruits listened carefully and were obviously affected. At least one couldn't eat her box lunch.
"They get why they're here," said a 28-year-old recruit. "The parallels are frightening."
She was one of several Polish immigrant recruits. (The police department asked me not to use their names because they haven't been vetted as department spokespeople.)
"I'm from Lublin," she said. "I would pass the Majdanek concentration camp every day on my way to school. [When the program began] I was thinking, 'What does this have to do with my police work?'"
Then she made the connection.
"It might happen, even here."
In the afternoon, they heard a terrifying account from a Polish survivor, Aaron Elster, who lived for two years, hidden in a windowless tin attic. Perhaps the most unsettling moment was a 2009 "60 Minutes" report, "The Bad Samaritan," about David Cash, a college student who looked the other way while his best friend raped and murdered a 7-year-old in the restroom of a Las Vegas casino.
Retired police Sgt. Diane Shaw connected the dots: the way the German police went along with inflicting horror and how police today go along with wrongs around them, making Chicago what one expert called "the capital of the Code of Silence."
"How willing are we to lie for somebody, to protect them?" Shaw asked. "Or rationalize things to ourselves. [David Cash] had a code of silence. Do you think there were people who remained silent during the Holocaust? They didn't speak out, for any reason."
"That was a huge surprise," said one recruit, a 38-year-old former bricklayer. "Now I see how they are tying it all in. It fits like a glove."
To watch the 113 recruits—military disciplined, polite, attentive, smart, sincere, well-intentioned—inspires some hope for the future of our troubled department. But only some. They have another training ahead of them, the training of the street, even longer, more intensive, and you have to wonder if their day in Skokie will stay with them. The organizers pressed the cadets to retain that positive self-image, to always be the officer they saw when they looked at themselves that morning.
"How you see yourselves, you were right on target," said Shaw, displaying a few charts. "You are proud. You should be. Honest and courageous. These are things you should continue to strive to be. Sometimes this gets tough. . . . You are the authority figure. [Hitler] used the uniform for the worst possible way. If he can use the uniform to the worst, how can you use your uniform for the best? The challenge is, what can you do to change your world? You're going to go to a district, to a watch, to a beat. When you get to those places, how are you going to change that part of the world for the better? How are you going to use your police uniform and your police powers for the better?"
|Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster shares his experience with Chicago Police recruits.|