Monday, December 19, 2016

Horrors of the Holocaust help teach ethics to Chicago police recruits

     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.


  1. While no one is suggesting the cops are always perfect, it hardly seems apt for the ethics department to compare Chicago cops to Nazis in the Holocaust era. Were the Jews shooting at the uniformed authorities, committing crimes,involved in drug gangs and shooting kids too? Didn't think so.

  2. Furthermore,Mr. Elster is also trivializing himself and other Holocaust survivors, if he thinks thugs are in the same category as the Jews were or had similar experiences. It's an insult to Jews, actually.

    1. You're looking at this from the wrong end. The question is not whether the people whom the police in Chicago confront are like European Jews. The question is whether, and to what extent, modern police officers would be willing to carry out atrocities if ordered to by higher authorities, or even peers.

      Also, it's insulting and borderline racist to assume that all people abused by Chicago police are "thugs."

    2. For a frequent reader, Woodman is showing a worrisome failure to grasp what the story about. The point isn't at all that cops are like Nazi goons. The point is that they have the opportunity to do good, or ill, in their official capacity, and need to go by their own interior moral compass, and sometimes not be swayed either by official directives or peer pressure. It's fairly plain. Woodman would do well to pause from complaining, take a breath, and look within.

  3. I don't suppose all the recruits will carry away with them the lesson imparted by the Holocaust director Kelly Szany or that it will survive the nitty gritty of everyday police experience in very many, but it is possible that some one of these new police officers when confronted with an event about to turn violent will remember that lesson and act accordingly. I think those who spoke to Neil and those who discussed the issues seriously with their colleagues are more likely to have committed the lesson to memory and to be inclined to act with decency and respect even when the circumstances seem to dictate authoritarian harshness and disregard for the rights that even a criminal retains.


  4. Great column. Thank you for this.

  5. Len Deighton wrote a quite good dystopian novel titled SB-GB; set in post WW II England. the Germans have won and his Scotland Yard detective must go on solving crimes under the supervision of the Gestapo. Moral conflicts arise since his masters have different views about the definition of crime, due process and punishment.

    Chicago cops seem less at hazard from being asked to enforce illegal orders than from tribal pressure to keep bad things quiet. Perhaps they should be administered the West Point honor code: "I will not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do."

    Tom Evans

  6. Nothing will change Chicago cops until they stop hiring graduates of the crappy Chicago Public Schools!
    There was for a short time a requirement that they have a four year college degree, but that was dropped to a two year degree under pressure from the black aldermen, all of whom are crooks, just like all the rest of the aldermen.

    1. chicago schools are crappy overall but have 3 of the states 5 best high schools . black alderman? how do they differ from any other alderman? and what power do they have? very little from what i read. why do municipalities with no black alderman not require a 4 year degree? what does someone being black have to do with anything? how exactly would higher education reduce the issues discussed in nails piece?

    2. The black aldermen have the mistaken idea that requiring a four year degree discriminates against black applicants.
      As to why others don't require a four year degree, they don't have the amount of crime or the social problems Chicago has!

  7. I see the police devolving when they get into an "us v. them" mentality. This is how the code of silence evolved. The lessons of the Holocaust may or may not be useful here. They appreciate the horror of targeting fellow countrymen, but still find ways to excuse their own malicious behavior as a necessary defense and protectiveness of fellow officers.

    1. The "us v. them" mentality is the point of the wedge those in power would use to turn the police against the citizens, this class appears to be an attempt to blunt that point.
      What (pleasantly) surprises me is that CPD would actually do something like this.

  8. Clark, you make an interesting point.


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