Wiesenthal Center offers hate-crime tools to area police

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On Sept. 21, a man who had publicly identified himself as gay at an Alameda City Council meeting discovered a burning rag stuffed into a bottle on his front lawn.

Whether last month's midnight attack on the home of Ben Felix was a hate crime is still under investigation. But as a result of a training program at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the city of Alameda Police Department may be better prepared to deal with such incidents.

"The center provides officers with the nuts and bolts as to why this kind of crime occurs and if they understand how this occurred, it makes for a better-rounded officer," said Alameda Police Chief Burny Matthews.

Said Sgt. David Parsons, "We were taught what a hate crime can be. It expands your awareness."

Titled Tools for Tolerance, the program provides California peace officers with a one-day training session on the Holocaust. While only a small percentage of U.S. hate crimes are religiously motivated, the lessons of the Holocaust provided the officers ammunition for dealing with broader issues of intolerance and scapegoating.

At the Wiesenthal Center, they listened to talks by Nazi death camp survivors and heard the testimony of Tom Leyden, a former skinhead.

"An officer from the Torrance police said he never heard about the Holocaust before," said Parsons, referring to the Los Angeles suburb. "I couldn't believe that someone never learned about this."

Parsons, who supervises the training of rookie Alameda police officers, said that understanding about the Holocaust will help his staff deal with hate crime.

"By seeing, learning and experiencing someone else's pain, officers gain empathy and can recognize when a graffiti is a hate crime instead of a vandalism."

Along with Matthews and two captains, Parsons was one of the first Alameda officers to participate in the program in June. By the end of November, all 106 officers will have toured the Los Angeles center.

Sgt. Randy Keenan, who traveled down to the Wiesenthal Center in August, heard Leyden, a self-proclaimed former skinhead and 15-year member of the neo-Nazi movement, tell police officers how hate groups recruit from schools nationwide.

Keenan also met a woman who survived Dachau. That experience, he said, now helps him understand and deal with immigrants.

"Sometimes, cops don't understand why immigrants have an apprehension of the police. In some countries, police are common criminals," Keenan said.

Sgt. Wayne Lehman, an Alameda police officer who returned from the center last week, is involved in hostage negotiations. He said his encounter with the ex-skinhead gave him further insight on how to deal with suicidal people, holed-up bank robbers and terrorists.

"The center gave me the tools to pick someone's mind, to figure out where that person is coming from and to resolve the crisis without something serious happening," he said.

However, Lehman said the Tools for Tolerance program has wider benefits, promoting understanding between family members and neighbors.

"When you're dealing with your spouse or kids, just realize there's a different point of view for every person involved," Lehman said. "Remember to say that there's two of us and things need to be done that benefit you and me."

Turning to Holocaust issues, Lehman said the lessons of Nuremberg are relevant to U.S. peace officers.

"`I was just following orders' does not cut it," he said.

"If I was ordered to round up people I couldn't do it. There must have been a high suicide rate among the guards — there must have."