Police officers undergo a tremendous amount of training. Officers need to learn to be alert for crime, to move fast, to use their weapons.
Baltimore County Police Major Karen Johnson trains dozens of new recruits each year, but with a different goal in mind. Johnson is helping officers to understand the power that comes with their position.
Johnson, who works with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Anti-Defamation League, said one of the biggest lesson she tries to instill in officers is that with great power comes great responsibility. The only way to properly protect a community, she said, is to gain its trust.
“All it takes is a few bad apples to erase any goodwill within a community,” Johnson said. “Once that trust is eroded, it is almost impossible to gain it back.”
Baltimore County sends each of its officer classes to the Memorial Museum for a day-long workshop. The goal is to teach law enforcement about the history of the Holocaust and to serve as a reminder of the role police play in protecting the lives and rights of citizens. Those who participate learn about the role that municipal officers played in the murder of millions of people during that time and discuss the consequences that arise when individual rights are ignored.
“Touring the museum and seeing the horror that took place is a sobering experience,” Johnson said. “You view it from a different perspective when you are in law enforcement. While police are often leaders in the community, they also are told to follow commands. A portion of this workshop is designed to show recruits that there are times when that is not the case, when a command is unlawful and inherently wrong. No police officer or government official is above the law.”
Former Washington Police Chief Charles Ramsey worked with the museum to help develop the program in 1999, explained Marcus Appelbaum, the museum’s director of law, justice and society initiatives. Since then, the museum has conducted the workshop for more than 85,000 law enforcement officers, including police departments from Baltimore City and Prince George’s County and even the FBI. In addition, the museum has developed a similar program for members of the judiciary; more than 30,000 judges have participated.
The five-hour police officer program includes a private tour of the museum, followed by a facilitated discussion led by museum historians and ADL personnel about the permanent exhibition. Participants receive a personal history recounted by an actual Holocaust-era police or SS member and hear how he or she dealt with the orders to murder civilians and POWs.
“Hitler could not have succeeded in his efforts without the cooperation of police,” Appelbaum said. “Law enforcement played a pivotal role during those years.”
Appelbaum said often police who come in for the program understand the horrors of the Holocaust but do not understand how it relates to them. That usually changes by the end of the day.
“We have had some police members wonder how their work relates to a ‘Jewish’ museum,” he said. “Many are too young to relate to the Holocaust, but by the time we are done, they realize why they are there.”
Appelbaum said the program continues to grow each year, as the museum conducts typically between two and four programs a week. There has been little marketing done for the program; organizations have mainly learned about it through word of mouth.
“This program is really an extension of our core mission,” Appelbaum said. “We want to inform those about the atrocities of the Holocaust so that it is never repeated.”
Johnson said she is open about talking about her team’s involvement in the program. She hopes that those who learn about Baltimore County’s training will better trust the department to serve and protect the people.
“There is often a great mistrust for those who think police are nothing more than a pro-government body,” she said. “Our young officers are taught to understand and appreciate human values, while trying to be sensitive to those who are victimized. Touring the Holocaust museum best illustrates what can happen when that trust is broken.”