Police training in Washington could avert crises
WASHINGTON - Seventy-five Philadelphia police recruits came here earlier this month for a lesson in values and community.
It was easy to wonder last week if the officers firing tear gas and pointing rifles in Ferguson, Mo., would have been helped by such training. For anyone who has seen the program, it would be easy to wonder if Missouri's protests might have been met with less force and community ties might have become less damaged.
Through the images and history displayed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the training course aims to leave law enforcement officers with a lasting sense of the importance of the values that drove many of them into policing in the first place.
"They have to understand the very special role that police in a democracy play," David Friedman, who helps lead the training, said before he met with the Philadelphia recruits Aug. 5. "It's about preserving and protecting our values, and it all focuses on their relationship to the people they serve. That's what gives their job meaning, but it's the essence of what differentiates policing in a constitutional democracy from other countries. . . . Respect of rights for the people."
Last week, those words seemed prescient as the scenes of tear gas engulfing protesters were met with one dominant reaction: This doesn't look like America.
To be clear, this is not to suggest that the shooting of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, and the heavily armed police response to protests equate to systematic, state-sponsored genocide. Nor do overly aggressive police belong in the same category as Nazi murderers.
That wasn't the point of the ethics course, either. The point was to demonstrate how quickly values can be lost, and that when they are, police can turn from the protectors they are supposed to be into something else.
"The Holocaust is probably the most extreme example of just how horrific and far-reaching the consequences can be when police officers violate their oaths of office and fail to protect the basic right and liberties of citizens," Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey wrote in a June essay describing the training. "But even small ethical violations on the part of police officers can result in people's rights being denied, their confidence in the police being eroded and their communities becoming less safe."
Ramsey first came up with the idea of the Holocaust-related educational program years ago, after visiting the museum when he led the Washington police force. Developed by the museum and the Anti-Defamation League, the training has spread to the FBI, Secret Service, and other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.
"Our power and authority come from the people," Ramsey wrote in the essay for Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the National Institute of Justice.
Above all else, he added, the officers' role is to protect and preserve the rights of the people to assemble, speak, petition and criticize their government, and be secure in their homes.
At the end of the Aug. 5 session, Friedman, an Anti-Defamation League regional director, asked the Philadelphia recruits to list the reasons they decided to become police.
To help people, they said. Aid their community. (And, one said, for the benefits.)
Then Friedman asked the recruits to list the ways they think society sees them. Every negative police stereotype poured out: Corrupt. Lazy. Arrogant. Abusive. Doughnut-eating.
How would they like to be seen? The answers: Trustworthy. Honest. Dependable. Fair. Courteous.
The key to earning that type of respect, Friedman stressed, was not in adherence to any oath (which can be changed) or political party (which can be corrupted), but through respectful, everyday interactions with the people they swear to protect and serve.
We saw this, too, in Ferguson last week, after the Missouri Highway Patrol took over crowd control with a new attitude, displacing St. Louis County police. New officers on the scene didn't wear gas masks among the demonstrators or aim rifles. They mingled with the citizens who were demanding answers. They spoke with them while largely maintaining order.
A change in approach, of course, doesn't solve everything. Early Saturday there was renewed looting and later Gov. Jay Nixon imposed a curfew to maintain order, blaming a small portion of the crowd and prompting some new cries of anger. The situation remained tense. Still, many in Ferguson appeared to appreciate the police outreach.
The Washington Post's Wesley Lowery, one of two reporters arrested without explanation Wednesday, wrote the next night on Twitter: "At this time at night on Monday, residents were in real fear for their lives. Tonight they're taking selfies with cops."
The new officer in charge, Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald Johnson, marched with protesters.
Lowery wrote about how one rally leader reacted as he spoke to the crowd through a megaphone: "They respect us. So let's respect them."
It's a simple, obvious message. But one that can still make a powerful difference.