ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa Police Officer Derek Lang acknowledged officers were a tad flummoxed when told they had to take a half-day course at the Florida Holocaust Museum on the role of police during one of the 20th century’s darkest periods, one that claimed the lives of 6 million Jews.
“Why is this relative today to what we’re doing in law enforcement?” Lang said of his colleagues’ initial reaction. “We have a belief this wouldn’t happen in this country.”
But, Lang said, as the course unfolds — it includes a museum tour, a film and two group discussions, one overseen by a museum official, the other with a representative of the Anti-Defamation League — it becomes clear lessons may be learned that can apply to how officers treat their constituents today, no matter their race.
The course, “Law Enforcement & Society: Lessons of the Holocaust,” created in 1998 by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the ADL, initially was intended for federal police agencies.
Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, who attended the course in Washington last year, was so impressed she asked the Florida regional office of the ADL and the St. Petersburg Holocaust Museum to customize the program for her agency.
Her command staff already has taken the local course, as have more than 250 members of the department.
Every officer is expected to take it by the middle of next year.
In one session on Tuesday, Urszula Szczepinska, the museum’s curator of education and director of research, revealed the underpinnings of the role of police in a constitutional democracy such as the United States through a series of photographs taken as Adolf Hitler came to power.
Germany, too, had a constitution during the Weimar Republic, Szczepinska said, but Hitler obliterated it, going so far as to change a police officer’s standard oath so he would be obedient exclusively to the Fuhrer.
Like the constitution, probable-cause affidavits went by the wayside, and soon police were engaging in activities at Hitler’s behest that previously were illegal, such as warrantless searches and racial profiling.
Touching on the concerns of present-day officers, Szczepinska noted that with Hitler’s rise, officers found themselves getting better equipment and, because freedom of the press was a thing of the past, their actions were not scrutinized.
They were compromised to such an extent that their core values were no longer in alignment with those they were supposed to be protecting, and that’s the main point of the course, said Szczepinska and Hava L. Holzhauer, the regional director of the ADL’s Florida office.
Tampa officers are expected to gain a new appreciation of how they are perceived in the community and how they want to be perceived, Holzhauer said.
“We see things the same way the community views them,” Castor said outside one class. “We’re working toward the same goal.”