By Christina Sahovey
While Mondays are not exactly…well, anyone’s favorite day of the week, Monday, February 26th was an exciting day at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh! The Center hosted its first-ever Law Enforcement and Society in the Holocaust course for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. We welcomed 25 recruits (future police officers, still in the training academy), along with about 15 other veteran officers, including the Chief of Police Scott Schubert, Command staff, and Training Academy staff.
These members of “Pittsburgh’s Finest” came to the Holocaust Center to learn about Holocaust history as it relates to policing, and the implications for law enforcement today. The cadets first toured the current exhibit, “CHUTZ-POW! The Art of Resistance” and got to see the artifacts the Center displays – including some weapons used by police in Nazi Germany that usually are off-limits to the public. They then watched the film “The Path to Nazi Genocide”, which discusses the role of police in Nazi Germany, how law enforcement officers were used to carry out many of the Nazi regime’s heinous acts, and the use of police in Einsatzgruppen units, among other topics.
Next, the officers and recruits heard from local survivor Judah Samet, who particularly spoke of his family’s interactions with police and the gendarmerie in occupied Hungary, and, later, being sent to the Bergen-Belsen camp. As one can imagine, most of those in attendance said that hearing a survivor’s story of persecution and survival had the biggest impact on them out of anything they heard.
The day concluded with Officer David Shifren – a Community Resources Officer from the Squirrel Hill station and one of the few Jewish officers in the city of Pittsburgh – alongside Dr. Norm Conti from Duquesne University and Sgt. Colleen Bristow (who heads up the Pittsburgh Police Training Academy) leading a discussion with the recruits that included making ethical decisions as officers, working in communities with people who are different from them, and balancing authority.
The training was moving and thought-provoking, with one of the officers involved expressing that it was one of the best trainings she’s ever attended in all her years of law enforcement.
While this is the first time a training like this has been done in Pittsburgh, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has been teaching Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust for over twenty years. USHMM teachers officers at all levels, including local police, state police in the surrounding areas, and all the way up to the FBI. Other cities with Holocaust centers or museums have followed suit, including the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, the Holocaust Museum Houston, and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Both recruits and veteran officers have participated in these trainings.
How it came to Pittsburgh happened in the summer of 2017, when director Dr. Lauren Bairnsfather had a chance encounter with Dr. Conti from Duquesne at a meeting about grants – completely unrelated from training police in Holocaust studies! Over the next several months, the Holocaust Center staff participated in a Think Tank on criminal justice and ethics led by Dr. Conti, and also met with staff members at USHMM who work specifically on the Law Enforcement and Society training program.
It may have taken some time to reach Pittsburgh, but this was only the beginning for this Law Enforcement and Society training locally! The Center is already preparing for the next Pittsburgh Police recruit class to come through in the summer of 2018, and will continue to refine and bolster the curriculum.
By doing so, the staff at the Center likes to think that we are doing our part – however small – in making the Pittsburgh Police a kinder, better, and more compassionate group of officers as they embark on or continue in their law enforcement careers. And by extension, this will make the city a more welcoming, accepting, and understanding place for all.