The Story Behind Important Statewide Justice System Training

by Sheila Polk, County Attorney, Yavapai County

In 2006, I had an experience that would forever change how I do my job and the lens through which I make decisions. My story begins with an unexpected visit by members of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Prescott Area, and an invitation to travel to Washington, D.C. to participate in training at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I arrived at the museum as a person who believed the Holocaust was a horrific event that had nothing to do with my work. I left the museum later that day with a profound framework for decision-making based on the Holocaust and a passion to provide the training to Arizona’s law enforcement officers and prosecutors.

Working with the museum, the Jewish Community Foundation and a new partner, Doug Bartosh, former Cottonwood Police Chief, we created our program called “What You Do Matters: Lessons From The Holocaust.” Our course examines policing within the legal and political framework of Nazi Germany – a journey that eventually turned those who should protect life and liberty into those who intimidated, humiliated, deported and eventually murdered millions of innocent people. Our training focuses on the pre-war period, studying selective photographic images that depict policing in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1942.

The goal of the training is to gain an understanding of how the German police shifted in a few short years from protectors of the people to enforcers of Nazi ideology. The objective is to assist Arizona’s prosecutors and police officers in understanding our crucial role in defending and protecting the individual liberties in our Constitution.

The health of our democracy is measured through the individual daily encounters that law enforcement professionals have with the public.

In examining how police in Germany gradually shifted from neutral professionals to enforcers of the Nazi regime and murderers of their own citizens, we strive to timely recognize the “slippery slope” before it is too late and to recognize that the shift occurs at a personal, professional and organizational level. Everyone recognizes the evils of death marches, killing centers and gas chambers, but when you get to that point, it is too late.

In 2014, our training expanded statewide with two new partners – the state boards that train law enforcement officers and prosecutors. Today, we are teaching law enforcement recruits, in-service and command-level law enforcement officers and prosecutors all over the state of Arizona. Picture rooms full of these professionals examining the history of the Holocaust and reflecting upon its implications for their personal and professional responsibilities in our democracy.

Hitler alone did not murder 6 million Jews and the millions more who were murdered for racial, ethnic and national reasons. It took the foot soldiers, the police, the prosecutors, the judges, the teachers, the doctors and many more to do their jobs, to sign the orders, to minimize their roles as inconsequential, to justify their actions for the good of the state, to choose a path of least resistance, or to remain silent for the Holocaust to happen.

Examining this history tells us that democracy is fragile. Studying this history reminds us of the unthinkable acts we humans are capable of. Learning from this history gives wings to the phrase “never again.”