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The Wrong Side of History

Chicago’s police cadets spend an immersive day learning about abuse of authority during the Holocaust. Can the same approach be applied to black history and civil rights?

Above: Inside the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie.
Photo: E. Jason wambsgans/Chicago Tribune

It’s a frigid afternoon in the middle of December, and more than 100 Chicago police cadets are exploring the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. A docent leads about 10 of them to a plaque about pastor Martin Niemöller, who famously denounced those who would stand silent in the face of injustice in the oft-quoted poem, “First they came…”

The docent asks the group for examples of “up standers,” who have defied injustice rather than be bystanders to it. One sarcastic cadet names an outspoken black activist who has clashed with police and become a subject of disdain among some officers: “Ja’Mal Green.” He gets a few laughs. The moment passes, but his wisecrack is a lingering reminder of why they are all there.

Since 2009, more than 2,000 aspiring Chicago police officers have attended this police ethics training program, the Law Enforcement and Democracy Initiative. The eight-hour course focuses on how German police participated in the dehumanization, systematic oppression, and mass murder of Jewish people, which instructors and police officials say holds powerful lessons that recruits can use on the streets in Chicago. “During the Holocaust, police were definitely on the wrong side of history. And there have been instances in America where you have police on the wrong side of history,” says deputy chief Keith Calloway, head of the Chicago Police Academy.

Despite the program’s popularity and praise of the museum itself (its permanent exhibit was dubbed “among the finest museum pieces Chicago has to offer” by the Tribune), a 30-something African-American aspiring policewoman from the South Side admits that before making the trek up to Skokie, she wondered, “Why are we doing this?”

Her words point to the elephant in the room. “From my own personal experience with black history and knowing how slavery existed for so many years, and given that a lot of the problems mentioned in the media is about black men being targets to police,” she says, “I was thinking it would have been better to take us to a black history museum.”

Chicago’s problems with abusive policing are certainly closer to home (geographically and historically) than World War II. In 2015, video of officer Jason Van Dyke shooting black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times spurred a federal investigation. This month the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report blasting CPD for a pattern of unreasonable and illegal force, particularly in black communities. The report also says the police training academy fails to teach cadets appropriate and legal policing tactics, and doesn’t instill “a culture of service towards all Chicago communities.”  Some civilians from communities of color “reported treatment so demeaning they felt dehumanized”; studies show that dehumanizing a person, especially in a policing context, makes it easier to be cruel or violent toward them.

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The findings weren’t much of a surprise (though the report was unprecedented in its level of detail and depth) and the mayor himself has acknowledged that CPD has a long way to go to earn the trust of communities of color.  

So why doesn’t CPD use a black history-centered program that mirrors what they do at the Holocaust museum, where historical artifacts, pictures, personal reflection, and survivor accounts are used to train cops?

“That’s an interesting question that I don’t know how to answer,” Calloway says. “It’s a program that we thought was beneficial… But we are looking for other museums as well, and the curriculum always evolves.”

 

The Illinois Holocaust Museum hosts about four to six police trainings annually for anywhere from 60 to 120 participants at a time. By 2018, museum officials say they plan to double the number of trainees due to heightened tensions around police-community relations and Emanuel’s pledge to increase the force by nearly 1,000 officers.

It has gotten high marks from recruits; the Holocaust museum says that 95 percent of participants report the training is a worthwhile program, and 92 percent would recommend it to a colleague, although officials say they are working on more advanced metrics to gauge the program’s success.

In one of the day’s first exercises, museum education director Kelley Szany has recruits draw a line down the middle of a large sheet of paper. On the left side, they list words that describe their self-image; on the right, they list words representing what they see as the public’s view. When Szany asks each group to share, nearly every table has on the left side things like “proud,” and “honest,” “courageous,” and “problem solver.” Many of the same words are on the right side of papers, too, along with starkly different descriptors: “biased,” “corrupt,” “racist,” and “killers.”

Both Szany and another trainer, retired Sgt. Diane Shaw, encourage the students to hold on to their positive image of self. Shaw tells them later in the day that they were “right on target,” with how they see themselves. “You are proud. You should be. Honest and courageous. These are things you should continue to strive to be.”

CPD recruits meet Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster
Chicago police cadets line up to speak with Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster, who told his personal story during an ethics training program at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago Police Department

The day starts with this message. But as the training wears on, the focus shifts to police who did embody the worst of what people think of the uniform. Szany shares pictures of police in Nazi-era Germany patrolling ghettos with dogs and shooting unarmed civilians. The recruits, some grave-faced with pursed lips and furrowed brows, listen closely as she explains that before mass killings of Jews began, police played a major part in their oppression and dehumanization, helping set the table for genocide.

Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster tells how he ran from police and Nazi soldiers and slipped under a barbed wire fence to escape a Polish ghetto. He lost both parents and a baby sister in the Holocaust. You can hear a pin drop in the room as he speaks, and recruits later remember this as one of the most compelling moments in the training. Elster assured the cadets that he respects the jobs police do and has nothing but warmth and gratitude to them for the roles they are trying to take on.

But, he admits, he feared the sight of police for years after the Holocaust.

“They used to be the killers to me,” Elster says.

 

The Holocaust museum uses its historical lens “to look at a different type of racial profiling and see the ultimate example of what becomes possible” when authorities abuse their power, Szany says. But what happens when police trainees are instead shown the more contemporary effects of racial oppression in the U.S.?

In fall 2016, Jeffrey Fletcher, a 59-year-old retired Connecticut cop, set out to answer that question.

Fletcher’s personal museum, located in his Branford, Connecticut, home, includes a 3,000-piece collection of African-American history artifacts, which he lends out to schools for educational purposes. Among them are shackles and chains that once held slaves; a sign from Texas that reads “No Dogs, Negroes, Mexicans,” circa 1929; and segregated “whites only” water fountains from the Jim Crow South. (Two years ago, Fletcher says he convinced an elderly Klansman to sell him his hood and robe and a Klan flag. He didn’t know the outfit would end up training police about black history, or that Fletcher was black.)

The 21-year-veteran of the New Haven Police Department says he was motivated to turn the collection into a training program after recent high-profile police shootings, where local residents told journalists that officers had acted as “judge, jury, and hangman.”

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“I said to myself: I can use my artifacts and incorporate my thoughts to educate law enforcement about the fears that African-Americans have of them,” Fletcher says.

His curriculum, named after his collection of artifacts “Images of America,” is anchored in the idea that American policing is historically wedded to the systemic oppression of minorities and American’s legacy of slavery—and he’s persuaded the East Haven Police Department to test it out on its 50 or so officers. 

Fletcher says he brings some of his artifacts to East Haven for the four-hour trainings, of which he has done three so far. The sessions begin (much like Skokie’s Holocaust Museum training) with officers sharing their personal experiences and backgrounds, what it feels like to be in their line of work, and issues they encounter during interactions with minorities. He then gives an overview of black history, including the Civil Rights Movement, driving home the long-term impact of slavery. The history provides context for why black Americans fear and distrust the police; Fletcher’s personal experiences as both a civilian and cop make the lesson more relatable.

Images of America artifacts
Slave chains and a Ku Klux Klan robe are among 3,000 artifacts in Jeffrey Fletcher’s collection, which focuses on the systemic oppression of black people in America. Photo: Courtesy of Jeffrey Fletcher

“I want everything in our discussion to connect,” Fletcher says. “I don’t want them to [feel] guilty. I want them to say, ‘This is how some African Americans view police after another incident of an African American shot or abused by police.’”

The CPD academy dedicates at least 55 hours of curriculum toward “diversity,” according to Calloway, but there is nothing like Fletcher’s training that applies black history to the Holocaust museum’s holistic, personal approach.

East Haven Police Deputy Chief James Nacarrato, one of Fletcher’s former New Haven partners, says the training got great feedback from officers. Maybe it wasn’t a comfortable experience, but Nacarrato says, “it opened the younger guys’ eyes to the feeling and thinking of African-Americans and what they may be going through.”

East Haven is the only city to adopt Fletcher’s training, despite his outreach to at least 10 police departments. Fletcher says he hasn’t contacted Chicago, but that the training could be especially useful in cities like ours where the police department demographics don’t align with how the community looks. Fletcher also says his approach would send a message to the black community that police departments are willing to educate themselves about and heal tensions tied to the role some cops have played in racial oppression.

“[Police] don’t need to be afraid of this,” Fletcher says. “They need to hear it, and they need to see it up close and personal.”

 

Back in Skokie, museum officials say that the disconnect between the training’s source material and officers’ daily struggles can be a good thing. “If we were to just dive into the topic [of contemporary police problems], you might have people who kind of shut down and immediately want to silence the story, don’t want to talk about it, or maybe just get hesitant or defensive,” Szany says.

That much is clear when a Holocaust museum instructor starts a discussion about why hate crimes are underreported—one recruit ventures a guess that they simply don’t happen much here.

Phillip Atiba Goff, a psychologist, is the co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity, a New York-based law enforcement think tank. Goff agrees that it helps some law enforcement trainees to be a bit removed from a historical example like the Holocaust, because they don’t see themselves as complicit. The risk is officers might not directly connect the lesson to what they are doing every day—or to the society they live in.

“Then, essentially, you went and you saw a movie,” Goff says. “You went and saw a play about other people’s lives, and you feel no obligation to integrate that into the work that you’re doing.”

CPD recruits look at Holocaust exhibit
The vast majority of police cadets say the immersive ethics training program at the Illinois Holocaust Museum is worthwhile. There is no comparable CPD program that connects black history with abuse of police authority. Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago Police Department

Training isn’t a panacea for CPD’s ills, but Goff and other law enforcement experts say training can go a long way toward addressing police department culture and racially biased policing.

CPD’s Calloway says there are plans to focus more on racial bias in the academy’s “procedural justice” program, which aims to teach officers how to treat citizens fairly and with respect.

These sessions feature lectures, PowerPoint Slides, video clips, group exercises, and discussion of key questions like, “What does the community expect from police officers?” and “What do police officers expect from the community?” according to a 2015 Northwestern University evaluation of the program. A slice of the curriculum also tries to apply historical context to race and policing around the country and in Chicago.

Researchers found black trainees more receptive to the training than their white counterparts, and highlighted concerns that some trainees might miss key connections the past and their own interactions in marginalized communities.

“In interviews, the trainers indicated that discussing the role of race in policing proved to be the second hardest ‘sell’ in the curriculum, following only having to convince officers that ‘legitimacy’ should be one of their personal concerns,” says the Northwestern study. One trainer told researchers, “On the [course] evaluation, somebody said the only thing that I did was show white officers beating up on black people. And I thought that I failed, because if that’s the only thing you remember in 8 [hours], then I did something wrong.”

Earlier this month, the Sun-Times’ Maudlyne Ihejirika attended one of these trainings, where civilians are also invited to offer the trainees perspective from Chicago’s communities. She writes about a “body language of discomfort on both sides” during one segment where attendees are shown “painful Civil Rights era images of police attacking peaceful protesters, or smiling under trees where black bodies hung in lynchings.” As described by Ihejirika, both sides spoke openly about the topic. But, “When officers were asked if they could admit some bad acts by fellow officers have caused the community distrust, there was radio silence.”

This is the city where police assassinated 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969. This is the city where former CPD commander Jon Burge and his so-called “midnight crew” allegedly tortured hundreds of black men in Chicago from 1972 to 1991. Last April, the mayor’s Police Accountability Task Force lambasted the police department as an institution with little regard for the sanctity of black and brown lives.

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So race is a major issue. But, Calloway says, “that’s America.”

“America is trying to tackle the same issues, not just the police, not just the city, it’s America,” he says. “Watch the news or look at the last election cycle…But we are an agency committed to working through our [issues] as best we can. And hopefully provide some awareness to our members to see things through a different lens.”

The DOJ report hadn’t come out when the cadets finish their day-long session at the Holocaust museum in December. But our aspiring black policewoman knows she is entering the policing profession at a time when the stakes are high. She says it’s up to her and the rest of her class to finally be a part of the solution. “I’m hoping,” she says, “that my face will be a comfort zone to some of those communities that are being most affected negatively by the police.”

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