What do the atrocities committed against humanity more than 70 years ago have to do with contemporary policing in the Steel City? A lot, according to organizers of a collaborative day of training between the Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh and the city’s police department.
“You got to recognize things happening in the past,” said Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert. “Law enforcement was used to do things against other people.”
Bringing light to law enforcement’s role during the Shoah was a central aim of the Feb. 26 training, given that attitudes may be carried over for generations, explained Colleen Bristow, a sergeant of the training academy. As a police officer, “you’re inheriting what those before you did. And you have to understand what those before you did, the egregious things that law enforcement did before and what has been passed down.”
In gaining a better understanding of not only those sentiments but of prior acts committed by law enforcement agents, cadets and officers from Pittsburgh’s police force traveled to the Holocaust Center to meet with staff, examine relevant artifacts — including Nazi-branded weaponry — and hear from Judah Samet, a local survivor.
“It was absolutely fantastic. He had me in tears,” said Bristow of hearing from Samet, who recounted his experience as a child survivor.
Jonathan King, a recruit, similarly described Samet’s speech as “amazing.” Listening to him “deepens my understanding of what he went through.”
As intended, the daylong training furthered participants’ understandings of the police’s complicated relationship to the Shoah, said Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center. “There are historical examples of times when police were put in positions that were unethical. Regarding the Holocaust, they were the Nazis’ henchmen and it went so far as the police doing the crime and committing the killing. So the Holocaust provides an extreme example for law enforcement.”
“You don’t see law enforcement’s role when you watch on the History Channel,” echoed Bristow. “You think it’s all military but it’s not, it actually has a law enforcement component as well.”
Investigating the period of the Holocaust was similar to other efforts that the Pittsburgh police have made, such as reviewing the role of law enforcement during the implementation of the Jim Crow laws, said Schubert. The purpose goes beyond questioning how “ordinary police officers allowed this to happen” to learning how to apply the lessons of the past.
It’s like what the 19th-century philosopher George Santayana said, Schifrin told the cadets. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The partnership between the Pittsburgh police and the Holocaust Center was the brainchild of Norman Conti, a Duquesne University professor, who last August floated the idea. Since then, said Bairnsfather, the groups collaborated on creating a meaningful engagement for all involved.
Given the participants’ responses, that mission was achieved.
“This is absolutely wonderful,” said Bristow.
King agreed, saying: “I will be taking the knowledge that average people can do either deplorable things or great things with their lives, and I’ll chose to do great things.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.