If we expect the best of people, we are more likely to receive the best of people,” says Tulane University historian Lance Hill.
That is one of the lessons of the Holocaust and the story of Oskar Schindler, an improbable hero of World War II, Hill says. A German industrialist and self-absorbed member of the Nazi Party, Schindler’s moral compass changed as he witnessed Hitler’s SS troops at work. He sacrificed his fortune to save the lives of almost 1,200 Jews from Nazi death camps.
His inspiring story is captured in “Schindler’s List”, a traveling exhibit of the United States Holocaust Museum, which concludes a three-month stay at the National World War II Museum on Aug. 31. There is also the 1993 film, Schindler’s List.
Viewing and discussion of the three-hour film has been required of all police officers graduating from the New Orleans Police Academy, post-Hurricane Katrina. It is an auspicious and surprising change of curricula for the often-maligned New Orleans Police Department.
Of course, even the modest promise of a movie can fall victim to the city’s recovery pace – “two steps forward, one step back.”
“You will never see so many happy police officers in one place, like you will after a [police] graduation ceremony,” Deputy Police Superintendent Bruce Adams said, standing under a spreading oak tree outside Dixon Hall on Tulane University’s campus. Newly minted officers, looking sharp in their crisp blue police uniforms, gathered with proud families. Babies bounced in loving arms. Older men looked at the graduating sons and daughters with pride, older women with a hint of worry.
The new class just heard a seasoned veteran commander declare that they would face a more violent type of criminal than any of the police brass had ever known when they were on the street. In January, Officer Nicola Cotton was killed with her own gun by a violent mental patient, now institutionalized.
Police training has been reviewed and adjusted, Police Superintendent Warren Riley says inside the emptying auditorium. “Much more defensive training, a lot more physically fighting each other, self-defense tactics, take-down tactics, Mace, Tasers and their batons,” Riley says. “They have always fought in the academy, it’s just more intense and they fight on a more regular basis.”
The chief also confirmed for the first time that Schindler’s List is an NOPD graduation requirement. Cultural diversity training has been part of the academy curricula since 1998.
The chief added the film after he and Deputy Superintendent Lawrence Weathersby toured the United States Holocaust Museum in February 2006, during a break from police a convention at Washington D.C.
Riley says he hopes the film will underscore for recruits the importance of cultural diversity, fairness and the consequences “of atrocities by a governmental agency.”
“We want them to clearly understand that we serve the citizens of New Orleans regardless of their economic conditions, race, creed, gender … that everyone is to be treated fairly,” Riley says.
Later, a reporter asks two cheerful graduates what lessons they learned from the movie they might carry onto New Orleans’ gritty streets.
Their smiles fall, suddenly.
They look at each other, nervously, then back to the reporter.
At 8 a.m., Monday, April 29, the first business day after graduation, the 30 newly sworn officers returned for one last class at the Municipal Training Academy on City Park Avenue.
Standing next to a television set, Deputy Chief Weathersby told the class: “There is a very great possibility that the people you see on the street will not be like you.” Police do not just arrest people, he said, they perform community services as well.
The lights dimmed.
NOPD’s new centurions shifted restlessly, during the film’s initial, character-building frames. Oskar Schindler, the greedy businessman, chain-smoking and womanizing, cavorts with hard-drinking officers from Hitler’s SS.
The pace of the film picks up. Armed troops evict Jewish families from their homes in the Warsaw ghetto. Recalcitrant men, women and children are shot. The rest are herded into trains bound for Nazi death camps.
The film ends with Schindler’s heroics.
The lights go on.
The discussion begins.
Most of the cops’ comments center on what movie scenes they liked or disliked.
Talk becomes more spirited when a reporter asks the officers how they themselves would respond to a commander’s order to “shoot-to-kill”
“We’re trained to stop the threat,” one officer retorts. “The order wouldn’t be given.”
“We are responsible for our own actions,” another officer says.
“No one can require you to follow an illegal, immoral or unethical order,” Lt. Richard Williams, the popular commander of the Police Academy, says.
“The purpose of the movie was to help sensitize you to atrocities committed against people because of their race and beliefs.” He repeats the “core values” of NOPD: professionalism, integrity, fairness and courage, which are conspicuously posted on the fleur-de-lis symbols of patrol cars.
Addressing the officers for the last time as a class, Williams sighs: “I know this has been beat, beat and beat, but you serve one of the most diverse communities in this country. We want you to treat people with dignity and respect. Whether it’s a victim, a witness or a perpetrator, treat everybody with dignity and respect.”
“When was the last time that a New Orleans police officer refused an order?” Prof. Hill asks later.
As director of Tulane’s Southern Institute, Hill has used the movie and a detailed study guide for diversity training of sheriff’s departments as far away as Alabama.
At the same time, Hill applauds NOPD’s unpublicized effort to teach the lessons of the Holocaust. “It is an enlightened training method that can only help police officers become more sensitive to the price of dehumanizing people who are different than themselves.”
Chief Riley is wise to warn recruits of the capacity of governments for “atrocities,” Hill continues. “He’s right in the sense that one of the lessons of the Holocaust was that the impersonal machinery of government is capable of imposing barbaric harm on people because government by definition has no conscience. That is a fairly important lesson especially where obedience to authority is a central tenet.”
Tulane historian Lawrence N. Powell, who wrote a book about local child Holocaust survivor Anne Levy, also praised NOPD’s screening of Schindler’s List.
“I think it’s great,” says Prof. Powell, author of Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, the Holocaust, and David Duke’s Louisiana. “I’d be happy to talk to the next [NOPD] class, so would she.”
Powell opines that the most important lesson for police would be the film’s emphasis on moral courage. “The greatest danger is rouge cops, not illegal orders, and the failure of moral nerve at the time when you know your peers are doing something wrong. At the moment of moral decision, you’ve got to do the right thing.”
Reached by phone, Mrs. Levy, now in her 70s, excitedly welcomes news that NOPD’s initiative, which will keep the memory of her alive. Of course, she would be willing address the next recruit class, she says. “I’d love to.” She suddenly pauses.
“Can we talk later?” she asks, hurriedly. “I have to go. I have tickets to the Hornets’ game!” It is the playoffs, she adds.
Her voice is strong and full of confidence, as if she learned to expect the best of people – a long time ago.