Fighting hate crimes through community policing
Recently, I had the opportunity to provide a safety presentation to a group of Jewish Holocaust survivors. The program was geared towards crime prevention, which is ironic as these gentle souls had been victims of some of the worst crimes against humanity this world has ever seen.
As kind as they were in listening to me talk about ways to protect themselves, they could have collectively said to me, “You have no idea when it comes to evil.”
And, of course, they would be right, as those eyes had seen unspeakable hell. To say it was a privilege to be in their company would have been a grand understatement as I was in the presence of a tiny part of a “living history.”
I think about those people now as anti-Semitic behaviour across North America has ratcheted up and I wonder what anxiety they must feel when they see recently vandalized gravesites at Jewish cemeteries.
Over the years, we’ve seen other violence against Jewish targets, and when the perpetrators are captured, we often find persons who have harboured illogical animus towards a group of people who have done nothing to them.
Sadly, these arrested subjects will only be replaced by others later in a vicious cycle that seems to continue unabated.
Will it ever end? And what can we do to abate this dark mindset? Maybe, take a page from community policing.
This approach to police services recognizes that we cannot arrest ourselves out of a problem, particularly something as foul as anti-Semitism and hate crimes, a corrupt phenomenon that has contaminated entire nations.
So how can a lesson from community policing address such an intractable mess like this, as well as other hate crimes?
For me, the answer is start young. Early education involving police officers and kids is a critical component of any community policing program worth its salt. We see it in projects like Safety Town and DARE, which are designed to reach young people in their impressionable years.
Through partnerships involving cops, teachers and members of the community, a collaborative effort can be made to challenge students to recognize the value of all human life.
Primary-grade children would be taught early on about the powerful benefits of respecting others who are different from them. As they get older, they would learn more about the fallacies of the unhealthy stereotypes associated with different religions or races.
This is critical because kids may be getting a different message from their homes and this can help stop the development of early prejudicial attitudes.
When kids get older, they should be required to listen to Holocaust survivors tell of their painful past. If unavailable, there are other people who could volunteer to tell their powerful stories. They could listen to a Tutsi from Rwanda talk of the genocide committed there in 1994 or a Bosnian Muslim talk about the horrors of ethnic cleansing around the same time.
These testimonies would definitely impact a young mind.
And as one final effort, a police officer could speak with older students about the legal ramifications of hate crimes. This would be followed by reformed offenders who could address the price they paid for adhering to a life of hate.
A comprehensive venture of this nature would certainly involve significant effort. But as cops who value community policing know, making a neighbourhood safe takes a team effort.
We are at a critical juncture, especially with the power of social media, where that effort is vital. We owe it to those beautiful souls I had the chance to teach (a generous term as I was the one taught) that we can in fact attend to the better angels of our nature and stamp out hate.
Tom Wetzel is a suburban police lieutenant in Greater Cleveland, Ohio, and an adjunct professor on community policing at Lakeland Community College.
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