The Story Behind the Law Enforcement Programs of
the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Tonight two law enforcement professionals will tell their personal stories of how a ‘chance’ opportunity to visit the United Sates Holocaust Memorial Museum changed their professional lives in ways they would have never imagined. How much fate, providence, inspiration, genius, vision, persistence, and commitment played in their stories is yours to decipher – what is undeniable is that each of these two individuals created a ‘ripple’ that became a tsunami of learning for law enforcement professionals across America. The simple questions these two individuals asked became programs of ethical leadership for those who protect and serve throughout the United States.

Charles H. Ramsey: In 1998, Charles H. Ramsey was hired to become the Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia (MPDC) and to return the department to national prominence. Among the scores of invitations then Chief Ramsey received from organizations in the Capital was a letter from David Friedman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s regional office in Washington D.C., to accompany Friedman on a tour of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Ramsey readily accepted the opportunity to tour the Museum, but wondered to himself what possible connection the Holocaust could have to his job as a police chief.

Ramsey met Friedman at the Museum, was introduced to Sara Bloomfield, director of the Museum, and toured the Museum with a docent. Ramsey remembers meeting Holocaust survivor, Irene Weiss, and hearing her story first-hand. Ramsey relates the tour of the Museum was an encounter unlike any he had ever experienced. After the tour Ramsey felt ‘haunted’ by something that lingered from his visit to the Museum – but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what was ‘bothering’ him about the tour of the Museum. Despite his busy schedule, Ramsey returned to the Museum several days later, on his own, hoping to find the source of his uneasiness.

After stepping off the elevator onto the fourth floor of the Museum, Ramsey immediately found what had ‘haunted’ him the past several days. On one of the Museum walls was a large photograph of a German police officer on patrol in Berlin – Ramsey then knew why the Museum tour had so bothered him. Ramsey asked himself: “How could the Holocaust have happened – the police are supposed to serve and protect their fellow citizens.” One simple observation and one simple question created a desire to know more about the role of German police in the Holocaust.

Although millions of people had toured the Museum by 1998 and historians had written books about the role of the German police during the Holocaust, no law enforcement official had ever asked the Museum staff that question. Ramsey wanted to know more and specifically he wanted to know if there were lessons that contemporary police could learn from Holocaust history. Working with Lynn Williams from the Museum and with David Friedman of the ADL, a course was soon created to explore that question: Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust.

 Initially taught to Ramsey’s command staff of the MPDC, the course quickly became a standard for many law enforcement agencies, including the F.B.I., U.S. Capital Police, Prince George’s County Police in Maryland, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Since its inception the program has trained an estimated 80,000 law enforcement professionals. In addition, the program has served as a model for other professionals such as the military, judicial administrative staff, and State Department officials.

Sheila Sullivan Polk: In 2005 Sheila Polk took a meeting with members of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Prescott that would forever change her life. At that meeting Polk was invited to travel with a group of county law enforcement leaders to Washington D.C. to participate in the course: Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust – the course Ramsey had initiated. For Polk, two thoughts quickly came into her mind: Is there a problem in my County Attorney’s Office? And what does the Holocaust have to do with me as the County Attorney? Polk was quickly reassured there was no problem with the County Attorney’s Office, and the reason for the trip was purely for educational purposes.

Polk was transformed by her experience at the Museum. Later Polk recalled how she felt in 2006: “I have taken ethic courses for 26 years now as a prosecutor and have never been touched or impacted the way the Lessons of the Holocaust impacted me. By the time I had finished, I went from believing the Holocaust had nothing to do with me and my role as Yavapai County Attorney to knowing the Holocaust has everything to do with my role as county attorney, with my role as a prosecutor, and with me as a person. By the time I flew out from Washington, D.C. the next day and made it back to Prescott – I was already thinking, I want all the prosecutors in Arizona to have the advantage of this course.” Polk arrived back to Prescott and immediately set about pursuing her goal.

Polk’s influence on the Lessons of the Holocaust programs is seen in the accomplishments of the last seven years:

  • Working with the Jewish Foundation, the USHMM, the Anti-Defamation League of Washington, D.C. and the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Association Council, Polk realized her goal of reaching all of Arizona’s prosecutors when the staff of the USHMM traveled to Tucson on August 3, 2007 to present the course to the Arizona Prosecutors Annual Summer Conference.
  • Having seen the impact of the course on prosecutors, Jerry Landau, Staff Attorney for the Arizona Supreme Court, suggested the course be prepared for Arizona’s judges – all of the judges. In 2008 the staff of USHMM presented the program, How the Courts Failed Nazi Germany: Justice in the Nazi Era, to 700 Arizona judges at their Annual Judges Summer Conference in Tucson.
  • The staff of USHMM successfully presented the judges’ program to the Chief Justices of the fifty states and six territories of the United States at the 2009 Annual Conference for State Supreme Court Justices held in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  By the end of that conference, 24 of the Chief Justices had requested the program be presented in their own home states.
  • With a $1.0 million gift from Jewish Foundation trustee Don Hecht and his wife, Susie, the Museum has been able to expand the judges’ program, having reached more than 10,000 state judges and staff over the past 3 years. It is expected that all fifty states will offer this program to their judges by 2016.
  • In 2010 Polk turned her attention back to Yavapai County and began to strategize how the original program she had seen at the Museum in 2006 could be brought to all police officers in Yavapai County. Working with the Museum, the Jewish Foundation, and with a new partner, Doug Bartosh, City Manager of Cottonwood, Polk created a program called: What You Do Matters: Lessons from the Holocaust. Using law enforcement professionals instead of Museum educators and historians, and using portable posters instead of the Museum’s permanent exhibits, Polk developed a program that allowed police officers to experience Lessons from the Holocaust without traveling to Washington, D.C. First presented in February of 2012, What You Do Matters: Lessons from the Holocaust has been taught to most Yavapai County law enforcement professionals and is now being offered to other law enforcement agencies throughout Arizona.
  • In February of 2014, the course was presented to the Western States Sheriff’s Association at their annual meeting.