County attorney uses history to guide modern law practices

Polk: 'Every single law enforcement officer' in the county to be trained

County Attorney Sheila Polk

County Attorney Sheila Polk

PRESCOTT - Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Sullivan Polk is on a mission.

She's heading up a program to teach law enforcement officers and prosecutors how Germany's government, which had a constitution much like our own in the early 1930s, slid down a slippery slope and ended up a totalitarian regime under Adolf Hitler, in which oppression and genocide were accepted.

The goal is simple: to keep those mistakes from ever being repeated in the United States.

In a presentation to a crowd of about 50 on Sunday at the Prescott Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Polk described a four-hour class she developed after a 2006 visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C., to observe a similar class.

"I grew up in Phoenix, and I had read the 'The Diary of Anne Frank,' and I had always thought the Holocaust was a horrible event that had nothing to do with me," Polk said. When she was invited to go to Washington to see the presentation, "my immediate response was, 'What does the Holocaust have to do with me?'" she said.

After sitting in on that class, Polk said, she recognized that "the Holocaust has everything to do with me, as County Attorney, with law enforcement, throughout the United States, (and) with all of our criminal justice professionals."

"By the end of that day at the museum, I was already wanting that training for the prosecutors in my office," she said, and began offering it to her staff under the title, "The Holocaust: What YOU Do Matters."

But Polk did not stop there - she has made it her business to give the class the widest possible audience. In 2007, she made it available to all of Arizona's elected county attorneys and 120 prosecutors; in 2008, 700 of the state's judges attended the class, and in 2009, Polk said, at a session in Santa Fe, N.M., all of the Chief Justices for each state's supreme court took part.

"In 2010, we trained 1,300 of Arizona's lawyers and judges, through a live webcast, to celebrate National Law Day," she said.

The most important potential students, Polk said, are law enforcement officers, which was why, in February, she presented it to all of Yavapai County's top police and sheriff's officials, DPS, and their command staff.

Over the next 18 months, she said, "They have unanimously committed to training every single law enforcement officer in this community in this course."

Her overview, though only a part of the four-hour complete class, began with a graphic video to show today's younger people what the Holocaust was and the enormity of the violence.

Polk then outlined how Chancellor Hitler carefully usurped power from then-President Paul von Hindenburg.

Under von Hindenburg, the police worked much like police in the U.S. today. "Incrementally, over a period of about 10 years, the function of policing (in Germany) shifted from protecting individuals to enforcing and protecting the Nazi racial ideology," Polk said.

"And in (learning about) that progression, students learn how incremental things can happen without (people) even recognizing them," she added.

Polk explained how Hitler used a fire at the German Parliament to convince von Hindenburg to declare a national emergency and suspend the German constitution. When von Hindenburg died, Hitler's new oath of office changed the focus from loyalty to the constitution to loyalty to Hitler himself.

She showed photos from the time, showing, for example, civilian police officers, who were still respected, working side-by-side with the new Nazi SS troops, which paved the way for the Nazis to gain power.

"Police being present adds legitimacy," she said, "and police presence helps identify who the criminals are."

By demonstrating how the suspension of rights affected the Germans, Polk said, she drives the point home. In showing photos of police doing warrantless searches on Jewish neighborhoods, "they come to appreciate why we have to have probable cause before we execute search warrants, and what can happen when you get rid of that requirement," she said.

Sitting in the front row was Lilo Koehl, 93, who survived the Holocaust. She was particularly moved by Polk's photo of German police with a dog. Just 14 at the time, Koehl, said the memory of police patrolling neighborhoods with dogs was still vivid.

"Even my father, and he was Jewish, said, 'Oh, this Hitler, he can't last,'" she told Polk. "He was not the only one, and he was not the only Jew - it was hard to convince people that this could be dangerous."

Polk said the classes will start next month and will be held twice a month until everyone is trained. After that, classes every six months will cover new hires.

"Incrementally, over a period of about 10 years, the function of policing (in Germany) shifted from protecting individuals to enforcing and protecting the Nazi racial ideology."

--Sheila Polk

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