By John Schaffner
The commander of Atlanta police Zone 2 brought home lessons on how law enforcement can be used to abuse individual rights after attending a two-day “Law Enforcement and Society” training mission in mid-May at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Maj. James Sellers, one of 16 metro-area law enforcement officials participating, said he gleaned “valuable historical reminders of the importance of protecting the constitutional rights of each individual citizen” that need to be spread throughout the Atlanta Police Department.
The training May 14 and 15 “provided a powerful and visual perspective of how the failure to act to preserve and protect the rights of citizens by law enforcement officials can result in deep and lasting tragedy and injustice,” he said.
The program is a partnership between the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the museum.
“One of the things people are often surprised to learn about the ADL is that we are one of the country’s leading providers of training for law enforcement officials,” said Bill Nigut, the director of the ADL’s Buckhead-based Southeast Region.
“We have a contract with Homeland Security and train their people. Every new FBI agent is required to take at least one of our training programs, and most take many,” he said. “Law enforcement people who have been involved with us love going through our various training programs.”
The ADL has offered the Law Enforcement and Society program for a long time, but the May session was the first offered just to officers in the Southeast.
The Southeast office has been lucky to get one or two officers into the annual national program, Nigut said, so Atlanta businessman Michael Morris, a board member for the ADL and the museum, donated money for a regional version.
Nigut said he is talking to Morris about how often to run the program. “He is very committed to seeing law enforcement officers better trained. This year I suspect we will do two trainings. Next year, maybe we will do three.”
Nigut said most first-time visitors to the Holocaust Museum find “it is a pretty overwhelming experience. You are so taken back by the big, big story of the extermination of Jews and others that it takes more than one visit to start seeing that there are other little themes and story lines that run through the exhibit.
“The story line that we focus on is how the German police force, which was a highly respected organization, was in a matter of months subverted by the Nazi Party and turned into part of their apparatus. In fact, we show the officers that the oath of office for a police officer, which had been ‘I swear to uphold the laws of Germany,’ became ‘I swear to uphold the rule of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.’ ”
The police played a key role in the Nazi plans, Nigut said: “They were the ones actually arresting the Jews in most cases.”
Nigut said the ADL program elaborates on whom police officers represent and work for. “What kind of relationships do they have with their own community? What keeps their moral and ethical compass properly aligned? In the face of swirling political pressure, how do you uphold the law and yet have a relationship with the community that allows you to work positively with them?”
The main problem with the program is that it is too short, Nigut said. He would like to see its lessons applied to real-world situations officers might face.
The group that made the trip in May has met again locally “to talk about how we take what they did up there and develop ways to make it work with their own field officers here,” Nigut said. “Those are ongoing conversations. I think most officers who were with us in Washington are going to want to do some version of this locally.”
Sellers said he left the training “with a renewed understanding that there must be constant reinforcement, training and dialogue between citizens and law enforcement which are aimed at understanding, sensitivity and respect.”