St. Petersburg Police hope to improve their community patrol efforts by tapping into a resource that's been in their own backyard for years: The Florida Holocaust Museum.
The premise? By looking back at a dark chapter in history, they may be able to learn from mistakes made by police in the past, and guide the department's future.
On Monday, nearly two dozen officers spent part of the day learning about the Holocaust. On Tuesday, it will be two dozen more.
The officers were clearly moved at times by what they were seeing and hearing.
“And this sort of thing helps us understand how people might feel in times of struggle,” said Detective Scott Elizondo.
The initiative at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg is aimed at breaking down barriers. Confronting stereotypes that officers may have for the people they serve. And vice versa.
Detective Ricky Carter hoped he would take away a better sense empathy, “To make sure that I'm doing a good job, and trying to be fair to all people.”
The lectures focused on how police in Nazi Germany became complicit in the Holocaust as they were slowly and methodically indoctrinated to oversee mass roundups. Later, executions.
People whom they once had sworn to serve and protect.
“It's very hard to believe that law enforcement, which we are, would be involved in something like that. I am, actually kind of hurt to think about that,” said Elizondo.
Hava Holzhauer, regional director with the Anti-Defamation League, applauded the officers for following a special calling. But she reminded them it also requires a special set of responsibilities to all citizens.
“Personal values, personal religious values, we cannot be guided by those things alone,” said Holzhauer.
Tampa police went through the same sensitivity training one year ago just as Ferguson was erupting and the department wrestled with racism accusations of its own.
St. Pete is now trying to deal with similar challenges.
“I think it just reinforces what we're trying to do as far as community policing,” said Sgt. Patricia Houston. “And I think, this reinforces that you have to partner with people.”
The program, say organizers, is a stark reminder of the critical role police play in seeing citizens as individuals. Treating all people as human beings.
It's a difficult job, they acknowledged.
But if the officers ever need perspective, the museum extended them an open invitation to revisit anytime.
To learn more about the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, click here.