ADL, police salute Lessons of Holocaust program

St. Louis Police Officer John Leggette is silhouetted against a video screen as he sings the national anthem during a Anti-Defamation League luncheon held July 30 at the Chase Park Plaza.  The event marked the 10th anniversary of Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust, a program held by the ADL and the Holocaust Museum and Learning  Center of St. Louis. Photos: Philip Deitch 

By Margaret Gillerman, Special to the Jewish Light

“During the Holocaust, the police were central figures not just in maintaining public order, but also in combating so-called racial enemies of the Nazi state. They also played a key role in the concentration, deportation and murder of Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe.”

— from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Ten years ago, docents and staff at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center led some of the first groups of police officers through the museum, showed them the heartbreaking exhibits and educated them as part of a then-new national pilot program, Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust.

Since then, more than 3,000 law enforcement personnel in the St. Louis area and Missouri have taken part in the program, which focuses on law enforcement’s abuse of power and trampling of human rights in Nazi Germany.

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On Friday, about 200 law enforcement and Jewish community members here marked the 10th anniversary of the program. The luncheon event at the Chase Park Plaza was sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, which partners in the program with the St. Louis Holocaust Museum. 

The event, however, was not without its detractors: About 20 protestors stood outside the Chase, upset that the event was honoring police and happening shortly before the Aug. 9 first anniversary of the shooting death of an African-American teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson.

Jean Cavender, museum executive director, told those gathered inside the Chase: “We look forward to partnering with ADL for another decade of facilitating Law Enforcement and Society.” 

She also read some of the officers’ testimonials.

One wrote: “The chronology of the rise of the Nazi regime and the role of law enforcement is an excellent motivation to review our personal prejudices. The program speaks to the moral foundation that must be present to become an effective police officer.”

The four-hour training program teaches how ordinary police in Nazi Germany became active participants in genocide. The program asks law enforcement participants to look inward and guard against their own prejudices and stereotyping and to examine the role of police in a democracy.

Karen Aroesty, regional director of ADL of Missouri and Southern Illinois, who initiated bringing the program here, said it has expanded beyond the initial cadets from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Academy to include veteran officers in St. Louis and St. Charles and in Jefferson and Franklin counties and beyond, as well as federal and state agencies in the region.

The event marking the anniversary drew nationally significant guests in law enforcement and Holocaust education.

Among them were two high-level representatives from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: Lynn Williams, director of leadership programs, and Marcus Appelbaum, director of law enforcement and judiciary programs. 

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who inspired and helped develop the national Law Enforcement and Society Holocaust program, was keynote speaker via Skype.

Ramsey, who is African-American, described his first visits to the national Holocaust museum as among the “most awe-inspiring” experiences of his life.

“It’s important to understand the history of policing … the times people were not being treated equally … to understand the past and look at the future to build,” he said.

Ramsey also is co-chairman of President Barack Obama’s White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which has proposed sweeping reforms in the wake of Ferguson.

“Some of the core principles (of the task force’s recommendations) are the principles of this program,” Ramsey said. “The first is building trust.”

The protestors  outside the Chase came from various organizations, including St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace. They handed out lists of African-American men who had been killed by police in recent months.

“Shame on the ADL for honoring St. Louis police,” they said.

Protesters were particularly outraged that the event was happening shortly before the anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting death by a white police officer in Ferguson.

“The ADL’s side is the side of police,” said Arielle Klagsbrun of St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace. “As someone whose family members are Holocaust survivors, the lessons I learned from the Holocaust for today are that black lives matter and that we must stand against systemic racism.”

Aroesty said later in response: “We stand by holding this event today, it’s the right thing to do. Do they want us not to talk to police about bias? As important as it is for activists to be here, at some time the activists need to come to the table and be part of the solution.”

Retired St. Louis County Police Officer Byron Watson, an African-American who attended the luncheon, said the ADL is “in the trenches,” fighting against discrimination and dealing with police issues. Watson is a member of the Ferguson Commission appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon.

Holocaust museum docent Sarijane Freiman, who teaches the program, said she often stops with groups at a picture of 10-year-old boy in Czechoslovakia who survived Auschwitz and grew up to be a pioneering researcher fighting heart disease: the late Dr. Gustav Schonfeld of St. Louis.

“I tell them, ‘One little boy survived, and he lived to bring a gift to the world, but 1½ million children were killed,’ ” Freiman said. “What gifts were lost?”

Kirkwood Police Chief Jack Plummer, a strong supporter of the program, said he was pleased that police participants now may earn continuing education credits from the state. Washington University Police Sgt. Bob Wayne said the course helped him in his job as a director of fair and impartial policing for university police.

Friday’s anniversary event also featured the posting of colors by an honor guard, the singing of the national anthem by St. Louis Police Officer John Legette and prayers by Pastor Clarence Hines. Other speakers were Roberta “Robbye” Frank, chairwoman of the ADL Regional Advisory Board, and St. Ann Police Chief Aaron Jimenez, who spoke of the importance of police treating people of all races and backgrounds equally and respectfully.

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