CENTURY CITY, CALIF. — Wearing buzz haircuts and two-piece suits, the cadets from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Academy wind their way single-file down a darkened corridor. Epithets come fast and furious from the shadows: "Redneck ..." "Arrogant Jap ..." "Whatcha goin' to do about it, Jew boy?"
The cadets have come to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance to learn how to promote tolerance on the streets. This so-called "Whisper Tunnel" is just one of dozens of participatory exhibits designed to jar visitors into new awareness of bigotry and racism within themselves and their communities.
"Being put in the place of minorities who get called this stuff every day can be emotionally numbing," says recruit Corey King. "It helps me grasp the insidiousness of name-calling."
As part of a new program by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, recruits are being sent here to develop a fuller understanding of the origins of racism and hate. While few expect a single day of sensitivity training will dramatically change the attitudes of some police, it could cause officers to more carefully consider their treatment of suspects.
The $50 million facility is a state-of-the art, interactive, multimedia and computer facility that chronicles the Nazi Holocaust as the ultimate example of man's inhumanity to man.
More than just recounting the horrors of murder in concentration camps, the museum retells the lesser-known conditions of Germany in the 1920s that led to the rise of the Nazis and official efforts to annihilate 11 million European Jews. Participants are challenged to draw parallels between those conditions and current headlines from around the world as well as in their local communities.
"As the history of World War II through Bosnia shows, intolerance has not gone away," says Sgt. Dave Anderson, a commissioner for Peace Officer Standards and Training. "This museum shows more deeply than anywhere the extremes of behavior that can follow when people abuse others even in a small way."
Although state law has long mandated cultural-awarness training, police officials in this community of 90-plus ethnic groups realized that an added dose could help in diffusing unrest that has been simmering here since the Rodney King beating made national headlines in 1991.
It was the Los Angeles Police Department that was responsible for the King beating - resulting in years of costly litigation, fines, and imprisonment for two officers. But the sheriff's department has also been under scrutiny in recent years.
The beating of 36 Samoans who were holding a bridal shower here in 1989 resulted in a civil suit that cost the department $15.9 million. One attorney surmised that a racial mix of officers with some sensitivity to Samoan customs could have avoided the altercation.
A commission looking into enforcement practices criticized the sheriff's department for its use-of-force policy as well as its lack of racial diversity.
"We have taken that to heart and tried to make changes," says Henderson.
For today's training, cadets make their way through an hour-long multimedia exhibit of the Holocaust, finishing in a replica of a gas chamber of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Over and over signs ask them: Who was responsible? Could it happen again?
Next, a series of workshops on human behavior. While a multiscreen video host peppers visitors with examples of bigotry, recruits pass from exhibit to exhibit. One reminds them of stereotypical images most encounter from childhood: Fat men are jolly, Asians are sinister, women are helpless. Another shows a videotape of people at a party making racist remarks about others but without owning up to similar attitudes in themselves.
"This place gives you a very thorough grasp that you have to understand and respect people from other cultures who may have had different cultural upbringing," says recruit John Egbl an migr of Nigeria.
Later in the day, cadets are lectured on cultural programming that predisposes them to judge others. Issues such as eye contact, handshakes, use of English are discussed.
Finally, the cadets are divided into groups for still further probing of hidden biases. They are asked such questions as "What can I do to soften my uniform image as a government oppressor?" or "Define injustice."
Drawing parallels between their experiences and the prewar Germany, one cadet compares the economic hardship of 1995 California, and the scapegoating of immigrants, to the economically depressed Germany of the 1920s which began lashing out at Jews.
Lloyd Wilkey, a museum instructor, acknowledges the limitations of this training but says, "It plants the seeds of awareness that these cadets have to understand their own prejudices before they can react and govern themselves out on the streets."