This year’s crop of future Chicago police officers are the first to receive sensitivity and hate-crime workshops. The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie hosted a two day event in which officers heard from Holocaust survivors and FBI agents about crimes related to racial, sexual or religious prejudice.
The workshops are meant to help them better serve their communities by understanding the potential for law-enforcement abuse and being able to identify hate crimes. About 50 officers-in-training, who will graduate the Training Academy in five weeks, attended. Some of them will serve the Rogers Park District starting next month.
The training on Thursday and Friday was part of the inaugural Law Enforcement and Democracy Initiative launched by the Midwest region’s Anti-Defamation League and the four-month-old Holocaust Museum.
Noreen Brand looks on as a police officer-in-training reads the life story of one of the people in the photographs shown to the recruits.
Noreen Brand, director of education at the Holocaust Museum, wrote the curriculum for the days’ sessions. She explained that the goal of the training was for police recruits to “become more human within the scope of enforcing the law.”
“We want [Chicago police] to look at diversity, at what makes up the greater Chicago landscape of people,” Brand said. “We have many refugees, many people that have come to our country because they have been persecuted. So [we want them] to use the paradigm of the Holocaust as the jumping-off point to look at human behavior.”
Police recruits write down their impressions at Thursday's training session.
During Thursday’s interactive workshop, Brand showed recruits historic photos from the Holocaust and asked them to identify characteristics of the people in the photos without knowing their names or stories. The officers-in-training had different ideas as to who were the “perps” and who were the “offenders.” Tellingly, their judgment calls often contradicted the truth behind the photos.
“I wanted to move [the training] out of the police arena into the human face of looking at those people that they’re going to come into contact with,” Brand said. “First impressions can’t always be right.”
In between workshops on Thursday, recruits talked among themselves about the day’s lessons and about the exhibits they were shown on a brief tour around the museum.
Officer Paul Mieszala, 26, said he had learned about the Holocaust in school but had not really made the connection of Nazis as law-enforcers.
“I learned how Hitler actually came into power and how he enacted these laws that made what they were doing basically legal … which I found pretty astonishing,” Mieszala said.
Mieszala and a colleague look at an exhibit of a concentration camp uniform at the Skokie Holocaust Museum.
Friday’s workshops focused on more contemporary issues Chicago’s new officers will face in the line of duty.
Dan Elbaum, director of development for the Anti-Defamation League, and FBI Special Agent David Young talked to recruits about how hate crimes are prosecuted under Illinois law. They explained how to identify “hate violence” and discussed hate-crime myths, one being that a heterosexual white man cannot be the victim of a hate crime.
Elbaum told officers to contact the ADL during their careers if they had questions about targeting or identifying a hate crime.
“We’re here to help,” Elbaum said.
On Thursday, the police recruits toured the museum.
Aaron Elster, who spoke to officers about his experience living in hiding from the Nazis for two years, was happy the Chicago Police Department brought their recruits to the museum for sensitivity training.
“[The new police officers] suddenly have power, and how they use their power makes a difference … because just to follow orders, like they did in Germany, doesn’t cut it. We have certain things in our hearts and souls that tell us what is the right thing to do and what is the wrong thing to do. And they have to make those kinds of decisions.”
Before the officers broke for lunch Friday, a sergeant announced to the sea of blue men and women that they all passed the State of Illinois Certificate Examination. It’s official: Next month these officers will be patrolling Chicago’s streets, taking with them what they learned in their 26 weeks of police academy training – and what they learned in two days at a Holocaust museum.
Text by Sofia Resnick, photos by Jessica Binsch.