How the Holocaust Has Helped Teach Police Lessons in Morality


The Law Enforcement and Society program, now in its 14th year at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has trained more than 80,000 people, from police officers to FBI agents to judges.

The Law Enforcement and Society program, now in its 14th year at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has trained more than 80,000 people, from police officers to FBI agents to judges.

I never dreamed, nearly a decade and a half ago, that my personal experience would develop, with much integral help from museum personnel, into a program that would resonate with so many individuals and which I believe truly helps make the world a better place.

To understand the evolution of the program, I must take a step back and fill in some of my own experience. Let me begin with a quote. The late American Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo famously said in his commentary on the judicial process: “History, in illuminating the past, illuminates the present — and in illuminating the present, illuminates the future.”

This was true for me when I first walked into the museum in 1998. As the new police chief in the District of Columbia, I received many invitations to see the city’s cultural institutions. I couldn’t say yes to every invitation, but somehow the Holocaust Museum seemed unavoidable.

After my first splendid guided tour, I left not only troubled by the images I’d seen but by a sense that there was something more I needed to learn about the Holocaust — yet I wasn’t quite sure what that was.

I returned a few days later to spend hours there by myself. Once I began to carefully study the photographs on the museum walls, I soon realized what was haunting me. Many of the images showed police officers working alongside Nazi soldiers. It was then I realized that there was a lesson to be learned from my experience.

More than any other profession, police are constantly negotiating and renegotiating their own sense of morality. In the moment when officers encounter a victim of crime, arrest an offender, answer a request for directions, or go on routine patrol, they have a choice about how to treat the people they encounter. Do they act with dignity and respect? Or do they see them differently?

That is why the Law Enforcement and Society program has become a critical part of our training. It helps us teach officers the core values of democracy: fairness, equality and compassion. The lessons of the Holocaust tap into our shared humanity in a way we cannot really approach at the Police Academy.

Most people mistakenly believe that the Nazi atrocities were carried out exclusively by the military and don’t understand the integral role that the local German police played — not only as bystanders who permitted the atrocities to happen but as active perpetrators in the destruction of the Jews. I certainly did not know about the extent of local police involvement in the Holocaust until my intense experience at the museum.

What I’ve seen happen with those who have gone through our program is that they are allowed to safely confront their prejudices, their morality, their sense of justice. It’s an educational experience and not just another training session, something truly emotional that has deep ramifications for all.

The technical aspects of our job can be taught. What we don’t do quite as well, if at all, is teach individuals how to think, how to feel, how to connect to other people when they are at their most vulnerable. Accomplishing this requires changing how police view themselves and the world around them.

The police have been called “the thin blue line” that stands between good and evil. There was a time prior to my visit to the Holocaust Museum that I bought into this metaphor — but no longer. I now see the police as a thread, one that’s woven throughout the communities we serve and that holds together the very fabric of democracy. If we view ourselves as a deeply embedded part of the community, rather than an entity that stands apart from it, then we are carrying on the message that what we do truly matters in profound and wide-ranging ways.

This is just one of the many important lessons the Law Enforcement and Society program has taught me — and thanks to the Holocaust Museum, so many others. May all our work continue for many more de­cades.

Charles H. Ramsey serves as police commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, president of the Major Cities Chief’s Association and president of the Police Executive Research Forum. This is adapted from remarks made at a recent dinner for local supporters of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which will celebrate its 20th year in 2013.


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